Every parent’s first concern is the same: “Is my baby healthy?” This question is one that doctors usually can answer. Another big question is far more difficult: “Will my child become a good and decent human being?” Most doctors would have to admit that they just don’t know, and parents are often left wondering if they really do make any difference in how their kids turn out. Lately child development experts have asked the same question, and a barrage of research on children’s moral development has resulted.
The findings are conclusive: the parent’s style as a moral instructor does play a significant part in whether his kids lead ethical lives, and certain parenting practices clearly are better than others in guiding children’s conscience development.
Here are six research-based practices and parenting behaviors that enhance moral children’s growth. All can be used in your everyday encounters with your child. All are critical to nurture strong conscience.
Six Parenting Practices That Enhance Strong Conscience
Why do some kids turn out good and moral, while others stray from the ethical path? Research says there are some parenting practices that clearly do make a difference in helping kids learn right from wrong. Here are the six parenting practices that are significant in raising kids with strong, healthy consciences.
1. Be a strong moral example. You are your child’s first and most important moral teacher. By watching your choices and reactions and hearing your casual comments, your kids learn moral standards. So what you do in those little ordinary moments of life may be powerful moral lessons. How you treat your family, friends, neighbors, and strangers; what movies you watch and the kinds of books and television shows you choose; how you react to everyday moral conflicts: your child cheating, his friend lying, the neighbor littering-all are decisions and characteristics kids closely watch. So make sure the behaviors your kids are picking up on are ones that you want your kids to copy. One of the greatest questions to ask yourself at the end of each day is: “If I were the only example my child has from whom to learn right from wrong, what would she have learned today?” Ask it often!!!
2. Develop a close, mutually respectful relationship. Studies find that kids are most influenced by those persons toward they feel the strongest attachment and deepest respect. They are more likely to copy these individual’s moral beliefs. One of the surest ways to nurture your child’s moralness is by developing a close, loving relationship with him. Experts say that the key is to make sure the relationship is mutually respectful: you treat your child with love and respect, and he treats you the same way in return. Of course, building that kind of relationship clearly takes one-to-one personal, uninterrupted time, but doing so is the best way to ensure that your child’s primary moral instructor is you.
3. Share your moral beliefs. Speaking frequently to your child about values and beliefs is called direct moral teaching, and studies find that parents who raise ethical kids do it a lot. Look for moral issues and talk about them as they come up. Use every source you can, from TV shows and news events to situations at school, at home, and with friends; tell your kids how you feel about these issues and why.
Judy Baggott, a mom who lives in Palm Springs and has three teenagers, found that one of the best sources for her moral discussions were columns from “Dear Abby.” She would look for letters addressing such issues such as cheating, shoplifting, teenage drinking, and sexual promiscuity, and then save them for relaxed family times to share her beliefs and hear her children’s moral reasoning. For example, she might say, “This is what I would have said and why,” or “If you were Abby, what would you have said? Do you think the person’s behavior was right or wrong?”
4. Expect and demand moral behaviors then develop a Family Mission Statement. Experts find that parents who raise moral kids expect their kids to act morally-even demand that they do. Chances are that the kids will, simply because their parents require that they do. Dr. Marvin Berkowitz,chairman of the Center for Character Development, emphasizes that the best moral expectations are those that are high yet reachable and that are clearly communicated to kids. Once those expectations are set, parents must stick to them and not back down. Here are a few examples of moral expectations that other families count on all members to follow:
- Honesty: Everyone in our family is always expected to be honest with one another.
- Kindness: In this home, we will always treat one another kindly and act just as we would like to be treated by others.
- Peacefulness: In this family, we talk calmly to one another and listen respectfully. We try to solve our conflicts peacefully and honestly.
- Respect: We talk to one another respectfully with words that build each other up and don’t put us each other down. We also honor and respect each other’s privacy and property.
- Responsibility: Each of us shares a responsibility to make our home run smoothly. We all agree to do our chores to the best of our ability, and we finish our work before we play.
- Effort: Everyone is expected to always do their personal best.
- Perseverance: In this family, we don’t give up
5. Use moral reasoning and questioning. Thomas Lickona believes that questioning is an important parenting tool for enhancing children’s consciences. He says that the right kind of questions can help kids expand their ability to take another person’s perspective and understand the consequences of their behavior, gradually teaching children to ask themselves, Is this the right thing to do? and What will happen if I do this? Here are a few questions a parent can ask that enhance her child’s moral reasoning:
- “Why do you think I’m concerned?”
- “How would you feel if someone treated you that way?”
- “If everybody in the class always cheated, what would happen?”
- “If you don’t follow through on your word, what do you think will happen to my trust in you?”
6. Explain your parenting behavior. I vividly remember overhearing one mother tell another about the “baffling” behavior of one of her eleven-year-old daughter’s guests at her slumber party. Apparently the girls had decided to watch a video, and the mom was quite surprised when her daughter’s friend joined her in the kitchen instead of watching the movie with the rest of the group. When she asked the child why she wasn’t with the other girls, she told her they were watching a PG-13 movie that she wasn’t allowed to watch. Then she explained quite matter-of-factly that her parents didn’t feel the content was suitable. What amazed me most was both mothers’ shock over the girl’s response and how neither could imagine their daughter doing the same thing.
The girl’s response probably would not come as a surprise to most experts, though. Studies find that because the parents clearly explained the reasons for the rule, their daughter understood their view and abided by their standards. Many researchers contend that parents often don’t “plainly explain” the reasoning behind their standards strongly enough, so their children’s conviction to them is often weak. Kids need to know not only that we want them to do the right thing but also why we want them to act that way. Clearly describing why you set a standard helps enhance your children’s moral growth.
This article is adapted from my book, Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing. For more strategies on building conscience refer to The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.
Berkowitz, M. and Grych, J.H. “Fostering Goodness: Teaching Parents to Facilitate Children’s Moral Development,” Journal of Moral Education, 1998, Vol. 27, No. 3, p. 371-391.
Lickona, T. “Raising Children with Character: What Parents and Elementary Schools Can Do.” The Grosse Pointe Academy Lecture Series, Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, Apr. 22, 1997, p. 20.