As a counselor to parents and children I often get this question: “How do I raise my child so they end up being a moral person as an adult”. I do not mean “moral” according to any one religious or political standpoint, I mean “moral” as defined from a non-sectarian viewpoint, involving the most basic humanitarian principles that even across cultures are agreed upon as exemplary behavior. Principles like honesty, empathy, not harming others, and patience.
It is no wonder this feels like a Herculean task…my wife and I struggle daily with the same task. So do the children and adolescents I counsel in my counseling practice. In this “I get what I want in 1-click” society our children are taught the idea that they should have everything at their fingertips. Immediate gratification reigns. Our society as a whole is increasingly internet based, “wiring” people into feeling their needs should be met NOW. Meanwhile, evidence suggests the influence of values like honesty and patience is shrinking. One survey reported the majority of students felt like cheating to get into graduate school was ok.
Meanwhile, as a counselor working with emotional/behavioral problems, I clearly see that those kids who have a stronger value system heal more quickly. Why? They take more responsibility for getting better. Parents are increasingly craving ways to get their kids to internalize solid value systems because our society demands a more proactive approach to helping children be “moral leaders” who do not fall prey to peer pressure. Or should I say “internet pressure”. Why do I say this? “Because the internet should be considered an enemy weapons system”, as my technology guy once joked. Children are more and more frequently exposed to unhealthy and frankly impulsive behavior every day on the internet.
In this cultural “dark night”, I begin my discussion with parents on raising their kid to be a “moral leader” by repeating an eloquent point made by C.S. Lewis: “The darker the night, the brighter the stars”. That is, the more your child is grounded in basic values, the brighter they will shine. Here are tips I give to parents:
-Be aware of the fact that children are forced to mature more and more quickly, so parents must constantly look to match their child’s developmental level with discussions about right and wrong aimed at that current level.
-Understand that one of the most effective ways to help your child WANT to be moral, is to talk about how not being moral affects their social reputation. Children, especially adolescents, most care about what their peers think, not what their parents think. For example, “if you lie to friends, they will not trust you, and they will not be friends for long”.
-When you ask your child about why they exhibited some morally questionable behavior, have them look you in the eye. Too many parents have forgotten that eye contact is one way to teach children that what you are asking them is serious and they need to “face up” to their behavior.
-If your child does something mean to another child, do not helicopter in and protect them from the real world effects of how the other child feels. Have them do a face-to-face apology for what they did, and/or write a letter of apology. What ever happened to apologizing? It seems it has been “psychologized away”, to the detriment of human civilization.
-Don’t just ask your child to apologize for what they did, but have them in their apology articulate how they understand the negative effects of what they did. Example for your 13 yo who slandered a friend on Facebook: “I am sorry I called you a slut on Facebook Jane, because I understand this affects your reputation among your friends and family. I will write a full letter of apology and publish it on Facebook, and I will go around apologize to your friends as well, stating that I feel embarrassed to have said this.”
-Make sure your child does a complete job of mopping up after they do something mean. For example, if your child starts a rumor about someone else at school, make sure that they apologize to the offended party, and work to help that person restore their reputation. It is not enough to simply ask them to apologize. When youth must work that hard to “mop up” their mess, they will think harder next time they have a chance to be impulsive.
-On your refrigerator have the 10-20 principles your family is dedicated to living by. The parent(s) should make a preliminary list, and then have a family meeting and include children in making the final list. That way, you get their buy in, and they feel this list is “who we are and what we live”.
-Make dinnertime a time when at times a child can hear their parent talk about a moral struggle they may and how they are thinking their way through it. Children do not internalize moral principles when being lectured or disciplined as much as from the daily modeling their parents exhibit over years.
-Make morally-related misbehavior a learning experience, not a lecture. Ask your child what would happen if everybody did what they just did. Example; they lied to a friend. Ask them how they would feel if their friend lied to them. And to make the example really affect them at their core, use a hypothetical where that friends lies about something you know your child REALLY cares about. You want to get their “nervous system” involved in this.
-When you think your child has done something wrong, sometimes it helps to first ask them why they behaved this way. Let them walk you through their moral (or immoral) reasoning. Then,
identify exactly where their thinking was faulty, but help them discover this by asking them questions instead of lecturing them.
-If you make mistakes as parents, where you exhibit morally questionable behavior, admit that to the family and talk about the negative affects of what you did on the family’s reputation. Don’t believe you can get away with the adage, “Do what I say, not what I do”.
-Make moral behavior a fun topic, that you talk about with stories of decisions you have struggled with. Morality is not a topic you come to feel passionate about because your parents lectured you about it.
Other references I like:
-The Parents We Mean to Be; How well intentioned adults undermine children’s moral and emotional development, by Richard Weissbourd:
-The Moral Child; Nurturing Children’s Moral Growth, by William Damon