From Newsweek, Fall/Winter, 2000, pp. 71-73.

Raising a Moral Child

by Karen Springen



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Nancy Rottering beams as she recalls how her 3year-old son Jack recently whacked his head against a drawer hard enough to draw blood. It's not that she found the injury amusing. But it did have a silver lining: Jack's wails prompted his 2-year old brother, Andy, to offer him spontaneous consolation in the form of a cup of water and a favorite book, "Jamberry." "Want `Berry' book, Jack?" he asked. Nancy loved Andy's "quick thinking act of sympathy" "I was thrilled that such a tiny person could come up with such a big thought;' she says. "He stepped up and offered Jack refreshment -and entertainment-to take his mind off the pain."

All parents have goals for their children, whether they center on graduating from high school or winning the Nobel Prize. But for a great many, nothing is more important than raising a "good" child-one who knows right from wrong, who is empathetic and who, like Andy, tries to live by the Golden Rule, even if he doesn't know yet what it is. Still, morality is an elusive and highly subjective-character trait. Most parents know it when they see it. But how can they instill and nurture it in their children? Parents must lead by example. "The way to raise a moral child is to be a moral person;" says 1lifts University psychologist David Elkind. "If you're honest and straightforward and decent and caring, that's what children learn." Humans seem innately inclined to behave empathetically; doctors talk about "contagious crying" among newborns in the hospital nursery. And not all children of murderers or even tax cheats follow in their parents' footsteps. "What's surprising is how many kids raised in immoral homes grow up moral," says New York psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld.

Parents have always been preoccupied with instilling moral. values in their children. But in today's fast-paced world, where reliable role models are few and acts of violence by children are increasingly common, the quest to raise a moral child has taken on new urgency. Child criminals grow ever younger; in August, a 6-year-old California girl (with help from a 5-year-old friend) smothered her 3-year-old brother with a pillow. Such horrific crimes awaken a dark unspoken fear in many parents: Is my child capable of committing such an act? And can I do anything to make sure that she won't?

There are no guarantees. But parents are increasingly aware that even very young children can grasp and exhibit moral behaviors-even if the age at which they become "morally accountable" remains under debate. According to the Roman Catholic Church, a child reaches "the age of reason" by 7. Legally, each state determines how old a child must be to be held responsible for his acts, ranging from 7 to 15. Child experts are reluctant to offer a definitive age for accountability. But they agree that in order to be held morally responsible, children must have both an emotional and a cognitive awareness of right and wrong-in other words, to know in their heads as well as feel in their hearts that what they did was wrong. Such morality doesn't appear overnight but emerges slowly, over time. And according to the latest research, the roots of morality first appear in the earliest months of an infant's life. "It begins the day they're born, and it's not complete until the day they die," says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of "Raising Children with Character."

It's never too early to start. Parents who respond instantly to a newborn's cries lay an important moral groundwork. "You work to understand what the baby's feeling," says Barbara Howard, a specialist in developmental behavioral pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "Then the baby will work to understand what other people are feeling." Indeed, empathy is among the first moral emotions to develop. Even before the age of 2, children will try to comfort an upset child-though usually in an "egocentric" way, says Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis: "I might give them my teddy even though your teddy is right there." To wit: Andy Rotering brought his brother his own favorite book.

Morality consists of not only caring for others but also following basic rules of conduct. Hurting another child, for instance, is never OK. But how you handle it depends on your child's age. If a 1-year-old is hitting or biting, "you simply say `no' firmly, and you remove the child from the situation," says Craig Ramey, author of "Right From Birth." But once a child acquires language skills, parents can provide more detail. "You can say, `We don't hit in this family'," says David Fassler, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association's council on children, adolescents and their families. "You can say, `Everyone feels like hitting and biting from time to time. My job is to help you figure out what to do with those kinds of feelings:" Suggest alternatives-punching a pillow, drawing a sad picture or lying quietly on a bed.

Children grow more moral with time. As Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard University has said, kids go through progressive stages of moral development. Between 1 and 2, children understand that there are rules-but usually follow them only if an adult is watching, says Barbara Howard. After 2, they start obeying rules-inconsistently even if an adult isn't there. And as any adult who has ever driven faster than 65mph knows, people continue "circumstantial" morality throughout life, says Howard. "People aren't perfect, even when they know what the right thing to do is."

Though all children are born with he capacity to act morally, that ability can re lost. Children who are abused or neglected often fail to acquire a basic sense of rust and belonging that influences how people behave when they're older. "They nay be callous because no one has ever shown them enough of the caring to put hat into their system," says Howard. Ramey argues that "we come to expect the world to be the way we've experienced it "whether that means cold and forbidding or warm and loving. According to Stanford developmental psychologist William Danon, morality can also be hampered by he practice of "bounding"-limiting children's contact with the world only to people who are like them-as opposed to bridging," or exposing them to people of different backgrounds. "You can empathize with everyone who looks just like you and earn to exclude everyone who doesn't," says Damon. A juvenile delinquent may treat his sister gently-but beat up an old woman of another race. "The bridging approach ends up with a more moral child," says Damon.

No matter how hard you try, you can't force your child o be moral. But there are kings you can do to send him in the right direction:

Always help them see things from the other person's point of view. If a child bops his new sibling, try to reflect the newborn's outlook. Say, " `Oh, my, that must hurt. How would you feel if someone did that to you?' " says Howard. Gardner encourages parents whose kids find stray teddy bears to ask their children how sad they would feel if they lost their favorite stuffed animal-and I how happy they would be if someone returned it. "It's one thing to hear about it at Sunday school,"he says. And another to live the "do unto I others rule in real life.

In the end, the truest test of whether a parent has raised a moral child is how that young person acts when Mom or Dad is not around. With a lot of love and luck, your child will grow up to feel happy and blessed-and to want to help others who aren't as I fortunate. Now, that's something to be proud of.