When raising children in a “me-centered” culture, it can be challenging to teach them right from wrong. Many examples and role models displayed on television or even in children’s literature often portray cheating and injustices without consequences, which is directly opposed to the very lessons many parents want to impart on their children.
How can you foster a child’s moral development when society has been deemed as a self-serving culture? According to Stephanie Manes, New York-based licensed clinical social worker, more needs to be done to foster the return of morality or goodness, and the place to start is with children.
By Emma Roberts, Summer Nanny
“The Process Needs Adult Intervention”
According to Manes, children can’t be relied on to spontaneously grow their own moral compass. The process needs adult intervention, she says.
“But rather than try to super-impose a set of rules, the goals of parents and caregivers should be to develop the child’s own capacity for morality, or a sense of goodness, empathy, justice and care for others,” says Manes. “These qualities need to be fostered and developed from the inside so that your child comes to recognize it as part of his own identity.”
As a rule of thumb, teaching your child about morals should involve creative opportunities they can experience first-hand. According to Manes, this gives children the opportunity to reflect on action and behaviors around them and weigh these against their own feelings and experiences.
Moral Development at a Young Age
Toddlers and young children often look to adults to articulate what is right and wrong. Even though research suggests that young children may not have the capacity for moral reasoning, Manes says that young children can empathize with others.
“Any discussion of why any behavior is right or wrong should include a simple statement about the effect it has on someone else,” she says. Ask the child to imagine himself in the other person’s position and prompt empathetic thoughts with phrases, such as “How do you feel when your friend won’t share the toy you want to play with?” or “When you don’t let Mia have a chance on the slide, she feels sad.”
Creative Lessons on Morals
Get creative when teaching morals by incorporating games for young children. “Almost any game requires turn taking, which is a building block for concepts of fairness and kindness,” says Manes. Take games to a new level by involving your children in activities that require some cooperation, such as leader-follow games or projects that require children to construct something 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,” says Manes. “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.”
Beyond games, children can learn moral lessons through books and stories. “Books are a great way to open a dialogue about the foundations of morality—sharing, social responsibility, compassion and non-judgmental actions,” says Manes. Try to select stories involving moral dilemmas and talk about the perspectives of the various characters. Instead of just reading the story, prompt your child with a discussion so he or she can learn concepts of morality within each story.
“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 behaviors and their own feelings,” suggests Manes.
Role playing can also teach your child about morality. Host a dramatic play in which your children practice putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. When your child gets the chance to play the “good guy” and the “bad guy” he can further develop his skill of understanding different perspectives.
Morality Begins and Ends With Family
“Basic morality relies on our sense of interdependence and mutual responsibility,” says Manes. “The best lessons for this can start in your own home.”
One of the best ways to teach responsibility and morals is to hold your child accountable for helping with household tasks. “Give kids age-appropriate responsibilities and chores and frame this as a matter of interdependence—the notion that we rely on the help and participation of all the members for the well-being of the group,” says Manes.
Model the actions you want your child to mimic as well. If you have assigned household tasks, do your share, too. If you want your child to be charitable, engage the entire family in volunteer activities. “Family volunteering is a hands-on way to teach kids about right actions,” says Manes. “Not only is this an amazing learning opportunity for your kids, it is a fantastic way to spend time together as a family that will give you a new platform to talk about moral and ethical issues.”
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