My daughter was born looking like an angel. However, she's not an angel. She hits the dog and runs amok. "Dirt, dirt, dirt!" she screams, pointing to my potted dahlias -- and, before I can intervene, scoops some of the soil into her palm, where it momentarily mounds like the richest of coffee grounds before she flings it across the room. This is my daughter. She's not a good girl, or a bad one. She is, simply, a 20-month-old girl with a whole host of impulses that I, as a parent, must help shape so that she emerges, a second sort of birth, into a moral person.
Morality isn't inborn. So many things are -- the impulse to smile, the instinct to cry -- but morality, the conscious, cultivated knowledge of right from wrong, good from bad, comes only with direct intervention or education.
Researchers studying the adult brain have located the biological bases of moral thinking at least tentatively in the frontal lobes, right behind the forehead. Damage to this area, by stroke or other accident, can render an adult human beastlike. In infancy and early childhood, the frontal lobes are naturally underdeveloped. The axons and dendrites have just barely begun the complex branching that transmits moral messages in a rat-tat-tat of electrical signals. My friend Karen has a 3-year-old son, Zohar, which means "splendor" in Hebrew. He does what he can to defy his name. The other day, he and his mother were over, and before we could say lickety-split, Zohar had reached out and smacked my daughter.
"No!" Karen shrieked, jumping up from the couch. I grabbed Clara, who had broken into a full-throated wail. Karen grabbed Zohar, who, probably scared by his mother's scream and his own wayward impulses, continued to windmill his arms, striking out at whatever he could. Karen and I looked at each other across our howling kids.
"Now what are we supposed to do?" she said. "Is he old enough for a time-out? I'd think he's old enough to know that it's wrong to hurt someone." Karen tried a time-out for a few minutes, and when Zohar told us afterward, "I know it's bad to hit," it seems he could well comprehend right from wrong.
Moral milestones may be the hardest to figure. Sue Resnick of Sharon, Massachusetts, mother of Max, 4, and Carrie, 7, says, "Nothing confuses me as much as how to teach my kids values, helping them to be people who believe in and act in good ways. The world needs people who possess love, honesty, and compassion, but these concepts are tricky to teach."
How, exactly, do parents impart a moral education to their children? While the strategies are as diverse as the moms and dads who use them, there are some tried-and-true tricks of the trade: role modeling, helping your child identify her emotions, storytelling, praise, and, last but not least, just talking.
Lauren Slater is the author of Love Works Like This: Moving From One Kind of Life to Another.
Role models and empathy of emotions
"Being a role model is key," says child therapist Jennifer Coon-Wallman of Lexington, Massachusetts. If you want your child to display integrity, empathy, and responsibility, you need to embody these values. If you want your child to speak politely and display respect for other people, you have to speak politely, even when your temper's running short. If you want your child to learn to value property -- yours and others' -- demonstrate it by tending to your own things: Pick up books and newspapers and put away clothes and dishes. Better yet, allow your child to participate in these activities with you. Toddlers are especially interested in wiping up and wetting sponges, and creative parenting can turn these potential weapons of destruction into tools of utility.
Emotions and morality have a strong connection. Studies of people with lesions in the brain's emotional center reveal that they not only have difficulty experiencing the normal range of human feeling but also tend to act in socially deviant ways, such as using inappropriate aggression. Emotions, in other words, serve as critical benchmarks for good judgment and behavior.
You need to teach your children how to identify what they're feeling, a task that doesn't come naturally. When a child can identify and articulate the spectrum of emotions that accompany human experience, he has taken the first step toward empathy: understanding himself so that he may understand others. To help kids accomplish this, look at picture books together in which characters display happiness, anger, and sadness, then point these out. Reflect back to your child what you notice he's feeling: "I see you're sad that we have to leave the zoo now."
These remarks are like little lightbulbs that illuminate through language. If your child can learn what he's feeling, then he can extend that beyond himself, and compassion is cultivated.
The moral of the story
Since the first written story -- The Epic of Gilgamesh, about a brave, lonely man -- was inscribed in Sumerian times, storytelling has probably been humanity's prime teaching tool. While paper has replaced tablets, books should be as substantial as stone in your child's life: classic fables and stories, books with lessons to learn, things to see, and many colorful surprises.
One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading to me The Little Engine That Could: toot, toot, the steep mountainside, the huffing machine, the sheer will that even now, 30-odd years later, I carry with me as an example of how to be when the going gets tough. And not all stories need to have obvious morals or even be written down. Children are always eager to hear tales from a parent's own life -- a dilemma, a scary time, and what Mom or Dad did to get through.
For kindergartners and grade-schoolers, you might make moral storytelling an interactive game. Take an Aesop's fable -- "The Tortoise and the Hare," for instance -- and read just shy of the ending. Close the book. Ask your child to imagine how it might end, and why. You'll be inserting her into the dilemma and asking her to tussle with it in a very visceral manner. This is a wonderful way to hone imagination and critical thinking skills, essential to the development of a moral mind.
Quite simply, people respond far better to praise than to punishment. Look for opportunities to compliment your child when he says "thank you" or undertakes other behavior that reflects compassion, honesty, or responsibility, such as helping out a younger sibling. Try to limit criticism, and remember that name-calling begets name-calling, demand begets rebellion.
A few months ago, I decided it was time for my daughter to learn to say "please." After all, she could say "Read me the book" and "I want a cookie." So, when she asked me for a snack, I said, "Say 'please.'" She looked at me blankly. "Puh-leeease," I repeated, mouthing it out as though this were speech therapy, which in a way, I suppose, it was. She started to cry and reached up her arms, all greed and hunger. "No," I said, holding the cookie higher. "Say 'please.'" This quickly turned into our own little version of a food fight, she demanding, I withholding, and before long we were totally polarized. From the South Pole, where she sweated out her rage, she screamed and screamed; from the North Pole, where I stood in icy resistance, I held her treat high out of reach. Then she got so upset that she started to cough and turned all red, and I thought, "I really hope she doesn't throw up," at which point I gave in, handed her the cookie, and chalked this up to a colossal failure.
Demands like that don't work, especially with a toddler, whose psyche is eerily similar to an adolescent's, full of rebellion and stamp. You can't force moral behavior; you have to back into it. When my husband came home, I said, "We're going to raise a rude kid; she won't say 'please,' especially not after" and I told him what had happened.
Then we had an idea: Our daughter loves music, so we wrote a song about a very polite spider and taught it to her. It worked. A few days later, she sang "please" before she ever said it, and as soon as we heard it come out of her mouth, we told her she was one of the world's seven wonders. She so loved the praise that she kept saying "please," and "thank you" soon followed.
Talking it over: Where parents come in
Michael Pritchard, Ph.D., a professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University, has written several books about moral development. His book Reasonable Children: Moral Education and Moral Learning is an account of how kids as young as kindergartners can engage in reasoned critical thinking about everyday dilemmas and moral concepts that involve cheating, truth telling, responsibility, and kindness. Pritchard recommends talking to children, recognizing their capacity to speak about issues and problems, and, in the process, to discover and shape their belief systems.
You might discuss an incident that happened during the school day. "You told me Bobby got sent to the principal's office for throwing crayons at a classmate. Do you think what he did was wrong? Why?" Talk about heroes and heroines and what their actions have meant to the world. And don't shy away from discussing flawed characters as well.
With kids 5 and older, you can also share tales of your own ethical dilemmas and what you did to resolve them. It's important to be honest -- it's all right for them to see you as less than perfect. Your very admission of blunders sends a message: You value honesty, and you're brave enough to see yourself clearly and try to improve on past mistakes.
Perhaps the most critical factor in nurturing moral children is to have an intact moral framework ourselves. This goes beyond mere role modeling: It goes to the heart of who, as parents, we are and what we deeply believe and wish to transmit. Children are an opportunity for so many things -- for a love unlike any other, for a return to playfulness, for awe and wonder. They are also, and perhaps ironically, an educational opportunity for parents. In having a child, we are forced to reevaluate our belief system, to dust it off, hold it up to the light, and fix the crooked places. This is really the foundation, what we must do before, or in tandem with, our own attempts to teach our children.
I, for one, have repeatedly been challenged by my daughter. She has brought me back to the most basic of questions and forced me to answer them simply. Why is it bad to throw dirt on the floor? Because it inconveniences me? Well, no. Because it's disrespectful of her home, her caretakers, and the plants that live in that soil. Why should she not hit? What does a life lived with compassion really look like?
My own child has stopped me -- still -- to ponder what should be obvious. Since her birth, I have become a hospice volunteer and a gentle gardener. She is evaluating me, at every moment. She teaches me as I teach her. Together we grow.