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.