Raising Moral Kids
By Dr. Elisa Medhus, MD
Teaching children to follow the motto, "If it feels wrong inside, it's good for no one," can help keep their motives sincere and pure. Read on for an expert opinion on raising kids who use internal dialogue to make objective choices because they feel right, rather than relying on guidance from external influences.
Deep down, we worry whether our children will grow to become adults with with a high sense of integrity, or become one of the dregs of society who think morals are a type of mushroom. Can we beat them into being "good"? Can we banish them into taking timeouts until they've agreed to be virtuous? Can we shame, humiliate or scare them into being moral?
Of course not.
However, we can tackle what lies at the very root of burgeoning morality in our children: self-direction. In other words, we can raise our kids to think for themselves -- to use internal dialogue to make objective choices because those choices feel right, rather than having our children rely on guidance from external influences, such as peers or rap song lyrics, to make choices that will best win them outside approval.
Since self-directed children are free to make choices for the right reasons — reasons that have nothing to do with others' expectations, evaluations, opinions or approval — their choices are more inclined to be ones that serve their own interests rather than the interests of others.
Sounds like I'm asking you to raise a bunch of selfish little brats, doesn't it?
Morally speaking, it's always in the best interests of the self-directed individual to do the right thing. For example, suppose Kristina sees a group of "popular" girls picking on her best friend's questionable choice in fashions. Will she stand up for her friend and risk being ridiculed or shunned by the "in-crowd"? Or will she slink away, hoping nobody notices? Worse yet, will she join in on the peer bashing? If she's self-directed, she will make the choice that honors her moral principles: she will come to her friend's rescue. Her sense of reason tells her that not doing so would make her feel like a traitor. She also realizes that betraying her friend could possibly destroy their friendship, a consequence she's unlikely to find acceptable.
Since she has such a strong sense of self and high self-esteem anyway, she doesn't really need the approval of the popular girls to feel good about herself. So the decision is easy. Making rational choices that agree with moral principles and values account for the high level of self-control, self-discipline and integrity in self-directed children.
When children are old enough, we can explain the difference between being selfish , self-righteous, and being greedy. Teaching them to follow the motto, "If it feels wrong inside, it's good for no one," can help children keep their motives sincere and pure. We can help them understand this distinction better by talking about the "good selfish" acts we engage in, what motivates us to do them, how these acts do not harm others, and how the benefits to ourselves spread to those around us. We can also help kids analyze the motives behind their own acts towards others. Do these motives allow children to keep their morals intact? Are their actions truly good for them in the long run? Do their actions help, rather than harm others? Could any ulterior motives be involved that make their acts less angelic than they appear?
Setting a Positive Example
It's also important that we try our best to obey the same rules we expect our children to obey, because not doing so confuses them about the meaningfulness of those rules. This confusion then motivates our kids to engage in externally-directed thought patterns, such as:
"Gosh, Dad curses like a rapper. How come I can't even say words like 'idiot' and 'stupid'? It's not fair. Those are useful words! Hey, I do have a younger brother to deal with, here!"
Here's another example: "Boy, I can't believe Mom told Mrs. Bevins that she can't bake brownies for the bake sale at school because she's sick with the flu! She's all dressed up to play tennis with Aunt Pauline! Maybe when she tells us we shouldn't lie, she means little white lies are okay. Does telling my teacher that Fido peed on my book report count as a white lie? I bet it does."
In both these examples, the children used external factors to arrive at a decision that is morally wrong. "If it's okay for my folks to bend the rules sometimes, then it's okay for me to do it, too." More importantly, the children used their parents' rule infractions to justify wrong choices. That just adds another line to the web of self-deception they're weaving.