How Can I Raise a Moral Child?
What is morality?
How can we raise our children to be empathic, caring, and moral people?
Moral behavior means different things to different people. For our purposes, morality means treating ourselves and others with respect. Empathy, compassion, and a sense of justice are central components of this kind of moral behavior.
Morality is learned
Babies are born neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. Children learn behaviors and values from their environment -- mainly from their parents, but also from siblings, other relatives, peers, teachers, and increasingly, the media. Children learn from watching how other people behave, from having conversations with adults about behavior, and from their own experience.
The moral behavior of young children may first be motivated by wanting to please beloved adults, or by concerns and fears about punishment. As children grow and develop, they begin to internalize external moral values as their own. However, children all grow and develop at different rates, and the ages assigned to the following stages of moral development are approximate.
Moral Milestones by Age
However you can facilitate your baby's sense of compassion and empathy by treating her with kindness, by helping her identify emotions, and (for toddlers) by setting limits on acts of physical aggression.
It's very hard for kids this age to see someone else's point of view. Their ability to control themselves -- to not become overwhelmed by emotion or desire -- is tenuous. Your preschooler needs lots of love, positive reinforcement and consistent limit-setting around behaviors.
By age eight, he should be able to really understand what it feels like to be hurt. However, his need to belong and the influence of his peers may cause him to do things he actually knows are wrong.
Grade-schoolers need help taking responsibility for their actions and learning that actions have consequences. Children change a lot during this time: A six-year-old might not understand the finality of death, but a ten-year-old should have a good sense of what it means.
This is a time for kids to start experimenting with different behaviors and rebellion against parental authority. Although your child might chafe against it, she needs consistent, compassionate limit-setting and strong parental guidance more than ever.
Adolescents become capable of thinking about more complex moral issues, such as the death penalty and the extremes of wealth and poverty.
Practical Suggestions for Parents
If you resort to using violence or humiliation as a way of keeping order in your own family, your children may begin to use those same techniques in their peer relationships.
Boys, especially, need to learn that having feelings is normal and even positive. All children need help learning to express anger without physically or psychologically wounding other people: "It's okay to be angry at Sean for knocking down your blocks, but you can't hit him. Can you tell him that you're angry?"
Encourage your child to remember how he felt in a similar situation, or to think about how he would feel under similar circumstances. "Sam's feelings are hurt when you call him names. Remember how you felt when he called you names?" "How would you feel if everyone teased you about how you look?"
Help her see that getting angry is okay and doesn't have to be catastrophic. "No wonder you're angry. Ellen treated you really badly. But you've been friends for such a long time. Can you tell her how you feel?"
Parents aren't the only influence
As a parent you have an enormous influence on your child's values and behavior, but we mustn't underestimate the influence of peers and the media as well.
Excessive exposure to violence or disrespectful behavior can affect the way children resolve conflicts or treat others. The media can affect children's behavior directly, but it also influences kids indirectly through their peers' exposure to it.
Having an ongoing conversation
When your children are very young, get in the habit of talking with them about justice and other moral issues. Talk with them about violence and your feelings about it. By keeping the lines of communication open as they grow, you're providing your children with an invaluable opportunity to explore their own ideas about morality and to reinforce the values that are important to you and your family.
Life is full of moral decisions and quandaries. There are opportunities to talk about your family ethics and morality with your children everywhere. Use news stories, movies, TV shows, books, and daily life events as a platform for talking about moral issues.
Encourage your children, even at an early age, to express their own opinions, to think about what they might do and say in various situations, and to try to put themselves in the shoes of victims of injustice.
By Michael Schulman and Eva Mekler
By William Damon
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