Most dads really want their kids to grow up with good, solid, respectable character. We know that character in a man is ultimately what matters most. But how do children with lots to learn in the character department actually grow into young women and men of character? How does that happen?
Rabbi Neil Kurshan writes, “Children do not magically learn morality, kindness, and decency any more than they magically learn math, English or science. They mature into decent and responsible people by emulating adults who are examples and models for them, especially courageous parents with principles and values who stand up for what they believe.”[i]
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted once said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
If our children are going to grow into young women and men of character, it’s not going to happen by accident or luck. And it’s probably not their friends who are going to produce that desired result. How can dads make a difference?
About ten years ago, when my children were still rather young, I read two biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. It was a profoundly moving experience for me. But I wasn’t sure why, because although I extraordinarily respected Dr. King, I did not especially identify with him. For the depth of emotion I felt for the weeks I was reading of his life, I expected a greater sense of identification in some way. But that sense of identification was noticeably absent. I repeatedly thought as I read, “I could never have done this. I don’t have the depth of character, the courage and resolve to have endured what he endured, the firm resolution to suffer as he suffered, the graciousness and strength to be reviled, jailed, beat, stabbed, accused, and threatened, and never to retaliate with force. I could never have stood up under such pressure. I know myself too well. I know my own weaknesses, my own need for acceptance and affirmation, my own cowardice, brokenness, and aggression. I could never be a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
I frequently heard words like this in my head as I read. I longed to emulate him—to lead in my sphere of influence as he led in his—but I couldn’t see myself ever being like him. Why was I so moved by his life? Was it just sheer admiration?
I kept asking myself these questions as I monitored my internal, visceral reaction to my reading. It slowly dawned on me: I was not identifying with Dr. MLK Jr., but I was with his father—Daddy King, as they called him, MLK Sr. We don’t hear as much about him. I gradually recognized how much time and character he invested into the MLK we now know and have memorialized.
It was Daddy King who convinced young Martin that he could become whoever he set his mind to be and do whatever he chose to do.
It was the dad who laid a foundation for greatness by believing in his son—filling him with courage, confidence, and appropriate pride.
Daddy King gave his son a sense of security in who he was as a black man in this racially divided country in the 1930s, particularly in the South where he lived.
It was the father who gave his son a tremendous gift of faith, self-respect, self-discipline, and a self-perception that allowed him to succeed in a white man’s world—to become the prophet and leader of change he eventually became.
One day, the thought settled in my mind with the force of a resolved commitment, I will never be an MLK Jr. myself, but I might be able to raise three of them.
In that moment, my fathering identity and role shifted for me—it took on new depth of meaning. By committing to raise three potential MLKs, I was not in any way predicting or implying that any one of them would become a great public leader of change, or do anything noteworthy in a national or global way, though they may indeed choose to. That was not the point, nor my goal.
My newly focused purpose was to be the kind of dad Daddy King appears to have been to Martin—to impart the sort of character, the kind of self-image, confidence, respect, and faith that would allow my sons to become anything they choose to become, and to achieve anything they set their minds on. My commitment from that time forward was to do everything possible in my power as a dad to set my boys up for success in life—whatever they choose for that to mean.
My resolve is that nothing within them would ever hold them back from becoming and achieving greatness, as they would choose to define it. That was the gift I came to believe Daddy King gave to Martin. Martin chose what to do with it.
That gift I never received from my dad. But it was the gift I longed to give all three of my young sons.
I know ultimately it is a person’s character that shapes the quality of their life, and what they do with it—what they achieve themselves and how they impact others, for good or for ill. So, it became what we sometimes call a “no-brainer” that for me to become a great dad, character formation must be central to everything I do with my boys.
So how do we do it? How can we focus on the goal, on what matters most, by shaping character in our children? Over the next few weeks, I’ll post several blogs about some of the ways I’ve tried to do this as a dad, and some ways we tried to do it as a family when my boys were younger.
[i] Rabbi Neil Kurshan, Raising Your Child to Be a Mensch (New York: Atheneum, 1987) 11.
To read more from Keith, take a look at his book: