Bad habits that, from within the home, lead to corruption and lack of responsibility.

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International financial institutions have documented that good governments are most probably in those countries where respect for the law, integrity and accountability are real practices. These government norms are essentially social norms; that is to say, a set of beliefs rooted in the dominant values within the community that tell us what kind of behavior is desirable and legitimate and which, if violated, produces at least unofficial disapproval.

Child raising and parenting are a private, family manifestation of those values and social norms. It is my opinion that probably in Latin America, and specifically in Costa Rica, certain child raising practices lead to corruption, a lack of transparency and irresponsibility.

What are those child raising practices? The following are some examples that I have come across: the use of physical manifestations or complaints to avoid accountability; overprotectiveness as a way of undermining autonomy; a lack of direct communication as shown by poor assertive thinking; confusion between being honest and being sharp; authoritarian and inconsistent parenting that produces underdeveloped moral reasoning and finally an immature view of the future as seen by an inability to put off satisfactions for later and an urge to look for immediate gratification.

Resorting to complaints. Let us look at some of these examples in more detail. In Costa Rica, parents give their children from an early age their immediate and overwhelming attention if the children have some physical complaint, and almost any stomach or headache are reason enough to keep them from school or from doing homework.

If the parents try to avoid this pattern, they might be seen as, or feel themselves to be, insensitive to their children, or even negligent. In our country, in all sectors of the population, it is very common for people to use physical complaints, vaguely defined upsets or illnesses to explain why they don’t feel well at work, school or home.

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It is a culture of physical excuses to legitimise not doing homework, arriving late, putting off or not accepting responsibilities and for getting the attention of others who also stop working so as to listen to the complaining.

My dear professor of internal medicine, Dr. Arguedas Chaverri, once told me that in Costa Rica the population can be divided into two groups: those who are tired and those with headaches. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were nothing more than an amusing idiosyncrasy. The problem is very serious if we see the results of a survey done by Latinobarometer in which Costa Rica appears as the country whose inhabitants are most likely to fake or complain of a sickness so as not to go to work.

In this newspaper (La Nación), last year, a report warned that the survival of our social security system is threatened because of the abuse of time taken off by public employees, which is four times greater than considered reasonable.

Oblique and indirect style. Another example is our kind of indirect, oblique and roundabout communication. Direct communication is avoided and all kinds of roundabout phrases are sought to avoid commitment, definitive answers, upsetting the speaker or potential confrontations. We even have a repertoire of expressions to refer to this kind of communication: tepid cloths, plate of dribble, wet skirts.

This trait is more evident when we look at emotive or conflictive issues. We convey to children from very early on that there is something wrong in going against the grain, demanding justice or compensation for damages of any kind. We are subtly but effectively educated that being assertive is bad manners, impolite and that the other people may get mad, resentful or respond in a revengeful or even violent way.

It is preferable, therefore, that we conform, to show aggression through passivity and, paradoxically, explosive reactions. This linguistic pattern conveys an ambivalence about rules and values, which results in a superficial internalisation of the norms of behavior. The practice of indirect communication is closely tied to the fear of being assertive.

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Even the meaning of the word itself is little known in our culture: the capacity to stand fast to one’s beliefs in a positive way. This ties in with another aspect of our idiosyncrasy, that being our position on accountability. It is interesting to see that we had to coin this phrase (rendición de cuentas) that in other languages is a single word (accountability, as in English), which we translate as responsibility, but this term conveniently leaves aside the element of external verification that is inherent in ‘accountability’.

Lack of respect for the law. To finish, one more example. Adherence to the law is scarcely applied in our society. This too could be reinforced with certain kinds of child raising practices. For example, we teach children contradictory standards in behavior: it is assumed that they must stick to the rules and laws, but, if they don’t, they are excused to some extent if they manage to mock the controls and escape the consequences. The idea is frequently sent them that if they aren’t caught, it is a sign of competence that neutralizes the moral obligation to respect the rules.

It isn’t uncommon to see parents comment with pride how their small children are capable of not taking turns, lying cleverly or successfully pulling a fast one, sending out a confused signal between being honest and being sharp; a message reinforcing the idea that being smart is more important than being honorable.

As an extension of this parenting practice, we see that when an adolescent commits a crime and his family has influence or power, he is almost always let off and the incident is trivialized speaking of it as a normal rite of his development passage. It is the moral school of Tio Conejo (B’rer Rabbit) where in the end it is important to finish up with your wishes, leaving personal integrity to one side.

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I think that the education system could integrate a curriculum that encourages character development, but this cannot be done as a subject or with a few hours spent on this issue. All subjects should deal with this ethical perspective, thus developing rationalisation and moral intelligence in the younger generations.

The family, in turn, is the natural environment where, through communication and action, children and adolescents are encouraged to live according to the principals and rules within which they are raised. In the last instance, this agreement between what is believed and what is done is the greatest measure of a moral life.

This article written by Written by Luis Diego Herrera Amighetti appeared in the Sunday 23rd May 2004 edition of the La Nación newspaper which is Costa Rica’s largest and certainly most influential newspaper. It has been reproduced here with permission from our friends at La Nación

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