The following is a guest post by Stephanie Manes, LCSW
Most parents I know (myself included) get a little queasy when the topic of morals comes up. We think of all the awful things that have happened in the name of morality and frankly aren’t sure what it can or should mean anymore, or what role it should play in the things we teach our kids.
The problem is that we are raising children in a culture that seems to be caught in a pretty serious moral decline, where more and more people are willing to doing “wrong” just to get ahead, no matter who gets hurt along the way.
So how do you talk to your kids about right and wrong in a meaningful way?
Rather than abandon the morality project entirely, we can think about cultivating basic goodness in our kids. Instead of just teaching a code of behavior, we can find ways to tap into their own capacity for kindness, fairness and justice. This is an inside-out project that applies at every age (and we old people can even learn a thing or two along the way). Here are a just a few ideas for growing goodness in kids of all ages:
Tips for Toddlers and Young School Children
Spell it out: Developmental theorists generally agree that young children do not have the cognitive capacity for moral reasoning and rely instead on adults to spell out right from wrong. But even with their limited range of moral reasoning, you can still tap into their budding empathy.
When you give directions about right or wrong behavior, include a simple statement about the effect it has on someone else, such as “when you don’t let Mia have a chance on the slide she feels sad…” Or you can ask the child to imagine themselves in the other person’s position (e.g. “how do you feel when you friend won’t share the toy you want to play with?”
Games: Almost any game requires turn taking, which is a building block for concepts of fairness and kindness. To take it a step further, look for games and activities that require some cooperation, like leader-follower games, jointly constructing something (even a simple block tower) or art projects that you complete together.
Don’t expect that your young child will go along with all of it peacefully — it’s actually when they don’t want to take turns or try to cheat that you get your teaching moments. When possible, let the children develop some rules themselves, like how long each kid’s turn should be. This helps them internalize the process and builds self esteem.
Books and stories: For very young and elementary age children, books are a great way to open a dialogue about the foundations of morality — sharing, social responsibility, compassion, non-judgement etc. Try to select stories involving moral dilemmas and talk about the perspectives of the various characters.
Encourage them to think about how the moral of the story might apply to their own life and help them make connections between certain types of behavior and their own feelings (e.g. if it is a story about sharing, talk about how they feel when they do this themselves).
Encourage and Reward: Young children are motivated by reward (this applies into early school years until they kids develop more of a range of independent thinking). Look for opportunities to notice and applaud acts of caring and kindness. You can turn this into an art project and make a “caring bag”. Everytime they do something kind or helpful put some kind of object into the bag (cut out hearts, marbles, pompoms) and give them a great reward when its full.
Elementary Age and On
Start with your own family community: Teach kids about interdependence and social responsibility by giving them chores. As kids get older, you can give them an allowance for completing their job but require them to set aside a certain percentage to be given away to a charity of their choosing.
In my own house, my daughter divides her allowance among three envelopes — spend, save and share. At the end of the year we do a matching donation to an organization she picks (ok, last year it was actually a micro-loan through www.kiva.org to help a woman in Africa buy a cow).
Model action: Family volunteering is a hands-on way to teach kids about right-action (and to actually walk the walk). Try to make this a regular part of your family life. Not only is this an amazing learning opportunity for your kids, it’s a fantastic way to spend time together as a family that will give you a new platform to talk about moral and ethical issues.
Use the news: Right versus wrong, fair versus unfair — these issues come alive in the news stories you can talk about at home. Even elementary age kids can be engaged in a lively discussion about current events and enjoy applying their developing sense of justice and fairness. Encourage your kids to share their opinions about current events based on their own independent moral reasoning (even if it breaks from your own way of thinking).
Stephanie Manes is a Licensed Clinical Social Worke with extensive experience and training in Individual, Couples and Family Therapy.