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Raising Moral Kids: Nurturing Kids' Character and Conscience

Malia Jacobson

Published on: November 23, 2011

Raising moral kidsMolly and Justin Sousley of Ballard were caught off guard when their 6-year-old daughter, Jillian, suddenly displayed some unwelcome traits: cheating, fibbing and poor sportsmanship. During family game nights, Jillian would regularly alter the game’s rules to give herself an edge and throw a fit if she didn’t win. “Right away, we realized that we needed to have some big conversations about right and wrong,” says Molly.

As the parents of two happy, well-adjusted young children, the Sousleys have been shocked at the intensity of the moral issues—including respect, kindness and self-control—that seem to be cropping up at younger and younger ages. “I remember elementary school as this idyllic time,” says Molly. “I didn’t expect to be dealing with things like cheating and lying so soon.”

Add in increasingly raunchy media messaging, declining family time and growing concern about modern kids’ lack of empathy and conscience, and it’s no wonder parents like the Sousleys feel like they’re in the middle of a moral mess.

Morality in a changing world

Modern parents are bombarded with information about how to keep their child’s body and mind healthy—but what about their child’s moral health? “Historically, morality was the central goal of child-raising. Today, that doesn’t appear to be the case,” says Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd, Ed.D., author of The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development.

Bestselling author and parent educator Michele Borba, Ed.D., wrote Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing a decade ago, and believes that today’s moral climate is worse than it was in 2001. Most Americans agree: A recent Gallup poll indicates that seven out of 10 Americans feel the moral state of the country is declining.

As Borba points out, peer cruelty is escalating—government reports show that a third of middle school and high school students have been bullied—and today’s kids are more likely to cheat academically than any past generation. In a 2010 study by University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 87 percent of high school juniors admitted to cheating, and nearly half of the students surveyed (47 percent) didn’t believe cheating was wrong.

Media meanies

Borba cites a decline in family time as a big reason for a poor moral atmosphere. In October, University of Missouri human development scientists reported that wireless technology is harming family relationships as people spend more time plugged in to a device and less time connecting with each other.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids’ media use has increased more than 20 percent in the past five years. Kids ages 8-18 spend more than 53 hours per week—seven hours and 38 minutes per day—using entertainment media. Thanks to media multitasking (using more than one medium at once), they actually observe 10 hours and 45 minutes of media content per day.

With fewer high-quality, face-to-face interactions, kids don’t have the chance to build and practice empathy, the trait Borba calls “the core of goodness.” As Borba notes, “You can’t learn empathy from a screen.” It’s this troubling lack of empathy, says Borba, that contributes to antisocial and anticommunity behaviors like bullying and cheating.

Social entrepreneur Mary Gordon, author of Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, agrees. A longtime educator, Gordon piloted empathy-building program Roots of Empathy in Seattle in 2007, 11 years after founding it in Toronto. “When we don’t have empathy, we don’t have a social brake,” she says. “There is nothing to stop us from being cruel.”

Religion’s role

With church attendance declining steadily—the Hartford Institute for Religion Research reports that church attendance has dropped 16.9 percent over the past 10 years—fewer parents are benefiting from the support of a values-based community or a ready-made moral script. Lack of support can hurt parents’ efforts to guide children’s moral growth, Weissbourd says; parents sometimes need other trusted adults to tell them when they slip up.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, executive director and cofounder of Seattle’s Kavana Cooperative and the mom of two young daughters, believes that religious communities can boost kids’ moral development. “There’s immense social benefit to belonging to a community of like-minded people with shared values,” she says. “And any religious tradition has a shared narrative that parents can use when talking with their children about morally complex issues.”

Families don’t need to attend a traditional bricks-and-mortar church or temple to benefit from this type of support, she notes. Innovative communities are springing up to fill a demand for outside-the-box religion: Kavana creates Jewish programming centered around holidays, learning and social activism throughout its Queen Anne neighborhood—at parks and in private homes—without a physical building.

Regardless of religious affiliation (or non-affiliation), one of the most important things parents can do for their children is to invest in their own moral growth, according to Weissbourd. “Parenthood can make you morally progress or morally regress,” he says. As an example of moral regression, he points to the increasing numbers of fathers who abandon their children. (According to David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless America, the percentage of children growing up fatherless doubled between 1960 and 1990.) Today, says Weissbourd, too few parents view themselves as engaged in moral development—leaving children without a healthy model of moral growth.

How happiness undermines morality

Though it’s tempting to blame declining religious affiliation and growing media use for children’s moral shortcomings, experts place the blame squarely on parents’ shoulders. In his book The Moral Intelligence of Children, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Robert Coles reports that parents are the single most important source of moral instruction in a child’s life.

Ironically, modern parents’ fixation with their children’s happiness has become hazardous to kids’ moral health. According to Weissbourd, happiness has replaced morality as the central goal of raising children. “My research suggests that in white middle- and upper-class communities, parents are focused on happiness—goodness tends to be secondary,” he says.

When parents prioritize happiness over basic human traits like kindness and compassion, children grow up with a skewed worldview: They are more likely to have an inflated sense of self, which corresponds to less empathy for others. The all-encompassing focus on happiness even creeps into parents’ attempts to teach their children moral values. Familiar statements like “Be nice to others, and they’ll be nice to you,” and “Pass the ball to her, and she’ll pass it to you” masquerade as lessons in kindness and sharing, but the underlying message is that actions should be motivated by personal happiness—not the greater good.

Children raised on a steady diet of happiness need to learn to appreciate sadness—an important component of empathy, says the Rev. David R. Brown of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Tacoma. “It’s appropriate and healthy to feel sad and troubled at times, when we’re thinking about poverty or abuse or problems in our community.” In fact, sadness is essential to moral development. “That’s how kids can begin to feel compassion for others.”

Parents also undermine children’s moral growth when they try too hard to befriend them. This type of “peerenting,” exemplified by Phil Dunphy on ABC’s hit show Modern Family, can backfire. “We identify with our kids so much, we often really see their challenges,” says Melissa Eller, an Edmonds mom of four children ages 16 through 23. “But sometimes that means we’re empathizing with them, instead of saying, ‘What you did is not right.’”

Raising children of characterChildren of character

Despite these common parenting traps, both Weissbourd and Borba see much to be encouraged about in today’s parenting culture. One bright spot: Many parents are teaching kids basic manners, says Weissbourd. “Being polite and respectful is one way kids develop moral awareness and moral identity.”

According to Borba, the most vital moral traits for children are empathy, conscience and self-control. “Kids need to feel the right choice in their heart—that’s empathy. They need to know it in their head—that’s conscience. But they also need the self-control to actually do the right thing.” These three qualities form a “moral core” that creates a foundation for other virtues, such as patience, perseverance, tolerance and kindness, she says.

Children are born with an innate sense of empathy that needs to be stretched and nurtured, says Anil Singh-Molares, the father of six children and the president and founder of the Compassionate Action Network, a Seattle-based network of groups dedicated to advancing compassion. “Children are born with compassion, but parents can’t assume that their kids will grow up to be good people. We have to be intentional about it,” he says.

Parents can do this by responding to and “mirroring” a child’s emotions in infancy, and talking with toddlers and preschoolers about how their actions affect others, instead of relating all consequences back to the child’s own happiness. “Don’t say, ‘Stop pulling the cat’s tail because you might get scratched,’” says Borba. “Say, ‘Don’t pull the cat’s tail because that hurts him.’”

Parents have a bigger influence than they realize, says Ian James Corlett, author of E Is for Ethics: How to Talk to Kids About Morals, Values, and What Matters Most, but the degree of their influence hinges on the closeness of the parent-child relationship. “Adults need to create strong relationships with children, be people whom children trust and respect, and truly know their children in order to assert any type of moral authority,” he says.

Parents fail to realize the power of their own moral example. “When kids 12 and under get a discount, and your child just turned 13, do you pay the higher rate without complaining? Kids notice those day-to-day decisions about right and wrong,” says Eller.

The most natural way to assert moral influence? Spend time—real, unplugged, face-to-face time—with kids. Spending unstructured time with children encourages the types of conversations and questions that allow parents to share their values, something experts agree is critical to children’s moral growth. “If you can start talking about these types of ethical issues when kids are young, you’ve got a great foundation to build on when those more challenging years come around the corner,” says Corlett.

The Sousleys are seeing their ethical instruction start to pay off. When Jillian recently declared that she was quitting her youth soccer league, they held firm: “We told her that she made a commitment to the team and she needs to honor it. Even if she doesn’t play, she needs to go to the games to support the team.” It’s a hard lesson, Molly says, but it sends an important message about responsibility and community. Jillian is starting to grasp those concepts, and Molly looks forward to continued moral growth. “More than anything, we want her to be compassionate.”

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published freelance writer specializing in parenting and health. She blogs about family life at

Targeting the ‘moral core’: empathy, conscience and self-control
These tactics were developed by Michele Borba, Ed.D., to help children develop the traits she calls “essential to goodness.”

Draw attention to unspoken feeling cues. Point out facial expressions, “people watch,” or watch television without sound to help children tune into the emotions of others.

Ask kids to switch roles
During conflicts with siblings, friends or authority figures, ask children to imagine themselves in the place of the other party to help them appreciate different perspectives.

Be a strong moral example. Parents are a child’s strongest moral influence; ensure that your own moral behavior is up to par.

Explain the reasons behind the rules
Telling children why you set certain rules gives you an opportunity to share your values with children, and gives them important insight into your ideas about right and wrong.

Create a family self-control motto. Post your slogan in a spot where it can serve as a constant reminder of the value your family places on self-control.

Encourage self-motivation
Help your child develop an internal compass by encouraging self-praise for positive moral behaviors: “You didn’t give up and you figured out that tough assignment. Did you remember to tell yourself that you did a great job?

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