I’m frequently asked to offer advice on how to raise ethical children. You might think someone who has been teaching ethics for as long as I have would know what to say. But the truth is, I don’t know as much as I think I do.
When raising our own kids, I almost always deferred to my wife’s judgment. She has spent most of her career working with children, and, more importantly, she pays attention. That’s where wisdom comes from.
I can quote Jean Piaget on moral development, but she will just give me that squinty-eyed look that means, “OK, let me tell you how it really works.”
So, here is the condensed version of “how it really works.”
Step 1 — The Rules: When children are fighting over a plastic shovel on the playground, and one of them hits the other one over the head with it, you physically stop them, and say “We don’t hit.”
Step 2 — The Words: Tell the child who is playing with the shovel that if someone tries to take it away, just say, “I’m using this shovel now.” Then turn to the other child and tell them if they want to play with the shovel, they have to ask. They can say, “Can I play with the shovel?”
Step 3 — The Reminders: As children get a bit older, and they have been told numerous times what to say, they just need reminders occasionally. When they get in a conflict, say to them, “Use your words.”
These three steps provide the basic structure of moral development, but they don’t provide the content. As parents, we still have to decide what specific rules to give our children. (The typical household has over 200 of them.)
We also have to figure out what words to use to express the rules, including what reasons count in various circumstances, and what to do when we don’t understand or agree with one another’s words. This part is moral reasoning; it is what most college ethics courses teach.
Finally, we have to determine how and how often to provide the reminders. Sometimes those reminders are just gentle nudgings; sometimes they carry sanctions.
Even though there is much more to raising ethical children than these three steps, the steps themselves are foundational. Plenty of adults wandering around today never learned to use their words and still think it is acceptable to use coercion and manipulation to get what they want. It does no good to reason with them. They need to go back to Step 1.
The mistake I most often see parents make is worrying too much about raising perfect children. The important thing to remember is that an ethical life is not a perfect life. It is a life in which we set standards, try to live up to them, fail, and try again. This means children need continual encouragement. What they don’t need is fault-finding.
Early in our parenting career, a friend gave us a book by the German psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim titled “The Good Enough Parent.” That book was incredibly helpful, not least because of the reassuring title itself. It rid us of the notion that we should try to be perfect parents. Instead, we should try to live our lives as best we could and provide an environment in which our children would be supported in their development, not shaped to meet our own expectations.
The parent who tries to raise a perfect child tends to be either too lenient or too strict. Either way, they end up making parenting all about themselves and not about their child’s legitimate needs. More importantly, the child often fails to establish moral confidence.
If they are too lenient, it’s because they are reluctant to establish clear and consistent rules. This results in a clever but insecure child, frequently misbehaving and adept at arguing their way out of trouble. Their parents often end up disliking them.
If the parent is too strict, it’s because they create too many rules and don’t trust the child to use their words. They keep hovering over the child, badgering, nit-picking and fault-finding. This makes the child unwilling to participate in the process of their own moral development. They frequently develop the habit of reacting instinctively against their parents’ rules rather than responding thoughtfully and deliberately.
Bettelheim again: “The grown-up’s superior ability to argue and his greater command of relevant facts … can be experienced by the child as simply the beating down of his opinion. … So the child feels out-reasoned, and to be out-reasoned is a frustrating and debilitating experience. It is a far cry from being convinced.”
It is important to understand that you cannot make your child be good. You can make a child conform to a set of minimal behavioral standards, but becoming a good person cannot be coerced because goodness is something that must be chosen. If you want your children to become the sort of person who is caring, respectful, honest and courageous, they must choose to be that way. Compliance is not the same as virtue.
In short, the best thing you can do is strive to live as ethically as possible yourself. Most children are incredible observers, and they are highly sensitive to hypocrisy. If you struggle with anger or self-centeredness, acknowledge it. For one thing, they already know that. And for another, it’s good for them to see that adults also struggle to live up to their standards. It’s a lifelong project.