Davidson Institute for Talent Development
This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Marybeth Hicks. She provides insight on how to raise a principled child and tips for moral development.
How to raise a principled child
Here’s how to help children internalize a moral code and exhibit principled behavior:
Model moral behavior
We have to be a principled parents to raise principled kids. Children can sniff out a phony a mile away. We can’t say, “Always tell the truth,” and then let our kids hear us on the phone lying to a neighbor about why we won’t be coming to her cookout. Our own ethical behavior speaks louder to our kids about how to behave than any lecture or life lesson we can offer. In every situation they ever observe, are our children seeing an example of moral leadership?
Connect behavior to character
Children want to do good and they want to be good. If we connect their behavior to their character, we show them how their actions speak for the intentions in their hearts. When they make mistakes, it’s OK for kids to feel bad! In fact, they ought to sometimes be ashamed of their choices and show remorse. This is how their consciences help them to see right and wrong in all things.
Praise moral conduct
Kids are faced with countless opportunities to make immoral and unethical choices. When they choose what’s right instead, we need to recognize them and praise their good character! Telling kids, “I’m proud of you for going back to the store to pay for a missed item,” or “I’m impressed that you spoke up against a bully” reminds them that their good behavior is valued. In the same way, we need to praise kids when they correct their mistakes. I never dress down a kid who admits to a lie, since I want them to learn that telling the truth is always the right road.
Practice through hypotheticals
Good judgment and moral behavior don’t come naturally – they have to be learned. We need to teach discernment in all situations so kids develop the moral intelligence to know right from wrong. This takes practice and lots of interesting conversations about real, as well as hypothetical, ethical dilemmas. When chatting with kids, pose ethical problems such as, “Suppose you found a diamond ring on the ground in front of a jewelry store…” Ask what a child could do, but offer variations on the problem as well. (“Now suppose your dog needed an expensive operation…”). Kids love to consider their ethical options!
When no one is looking
Teach the adage, “Character is what you do even when no one is looking.” Help kids develop a sense of pride based on integrity and authentic ethical behavior. Remind them that no one might know about an unethical choice such as lying or stealing, but the child in the mirror knows everything.
Principles in action
Principled kids often face uncool tasks, such as speaking out on behalf of a friend who’s being teased or confronting peers who are cheating. They don’t just look the other way to avoid the wrath of the popular crowd; they stick by their principles because they have strong personal character. It takes courage to uphold principles in childhood – kids might see how taking moral shortcuts would make them popular and get them included in the cool crowd. When we convey to our kids how much we admire their ethical choices and moral behavior, we give them incentive to keep choosing what’s right. When they make mistakes and feel badly about themselves, we can teach them that righting their course is the way to authentic self-esteem.
A principled child is one who understands how his actions can hurt or help others. Raising a child who stands on principle isn’t easy, since the culture offers so many attractive, unethical choices. But a kid who grows in moral intelligence sees himself as an agent for goodness in his own world, and later, in a “real world” that desperately needs more principled geeks.
Tips for geeky moral development
For kids of all ages:
- Adopt a vocabulary for moral behavior. Tape it to the fridge!
- Talk about ethical choices. Be sure to use the words “conscience,” “character” and “ethical” so kids understand it’s a question of right and wrong.
- Applaud moral behavior whenever you see it.
- Model moral choices and get your kids’ input when you are faced with a moral dilemma at work or in the community.
For elementary school kids:
- Watch or read the children’s classic, Pinocchio and talk about the important role played by Jiminy Cricket! (He served as the boy’s conscience, but he didn’t do a great job for much of the story).
- When reading books, talk about “the moral of the story…”
- Define behaviors as “right” and “wrong.” Encourage kids to make choices that are “good” and not “bad.”
- If a child makes an unethical mistake such as cheating, stealing or lying, teach him how to correct it by taking responsibility and making amends. Don’t just say, “Never do that again.” Take back the stolen item, make him admit the lie or confess the cheating and suffer the consequences.
For middle school kids:
- Make it tough to cheat. Stay on top of schoolwork and be aware if homework is done at home.
- Discuss moral dilemmas in friendship struggles. Talk about how to be an ethical friend.
- Set rules for internet use that convey your ethical standards. Ask your middle schooler how she can use the net ethically.
- Talk about themes presented in movies and TV shows. Consider the ethical problems involved in the plot and discuss whether the characters choose right or wrong.
For high schoolers:
- Talk seriously about the ramifications of cheating. Make sure your high schooler knows the school policy about cheating and consider setting one of your own, as well.
- Establish a “truth bonus,” an understanding that telling the truth about a mistake will minimize the consequences, while lying will make the outcome worse.
- Discuss the importance of hanging with ethical friends. Encourage your child not to straddle the fence by hanging out with kids who make poor choices. Remind him he’s known by his friends.
- Let your child know when people tell you they admire his good character (they will!). Tell him how proud you are of him and thank him for upholding the family’s good name!