Children spontaneously develop moral motives, an inclination to care about others and treat them kindly and fairly, at a very young age. But they also develop aggressive, greedy and selfish motives. Both kinds of motives are part of every child’s nature and will create tension throughout the child’s life. However, children’s moral motives are readily susceptible to moral instruction by parents and mentors.

Children demonstrate empathy before their second year and will even try to provide comfort to others (Schulman, 1994). They display a sense of right and wrong by the time they’re three and will argue their decision to act in a certain way from a personal sense of fairness. They develop a moral identity and make excuses for themselves to preserve their moral view of themselves. Morality is already evident in the four to five year old. They want to be thought of as good by others and they grow and become part of communities where they feel they are thought of as good.

Research suggests that parents who are willing to intelligently demonstrate emotions and express their own fears, guilt, anger and doubts produce children who are more feeling and responsive with regard to others (Schulman, 1994). They seem more at ease in dealing with situations including moral dilemmas.

There are three sources of moral/ethical motives: 1) empathy or the ability to experience another’s feelings as if they were one’s own, 2) justice/fairness or one’s individual personal standards of the right and wrong way to treat others and 3) desire to be accepted and approved by those they think are good moral examples (Schulman, 1994).

Parents can tap into these sources to help their children develop moral/ethical motives. But they need to be clear and consistent in communicating to their children that it is really what they value and want. Most parents don’t want their children hurting others and getting into any kind of trouble but they frequently worry that if their child shows kindness, empathy, and behave justly he will be taken advantage of or will be seen as weak. According to Schulman (1994), the opposite is true. “Children who treat others well out of empathy and a sense of right and wrong tend to be strong, resilient and pretty good observers of others.”
Tips for raising a moral child:

  • Remember, morality is a process. Children should be encouraged to learn from mistakes and to strive to do better.
  • Be a loving, moral example. Children learn from what you are modeling for them. Explain rules in terms of fairness and kindness. To help them develop internal ethical motives, ask ethics-based questions: “How would you feel if someone did that to you? What if all of us behaved that way? What is the best thing to do in this kind of situation?”
  • Talk about human goodness and model human goodness and kindness. Too often the media, the entrainment industry and schools expose children only to people’s injustice, violence, unfairness toward others (Schulman, 1994). Parents can and should provide a more balanced and healthy view. Children need to feel hopeful and to be inspired (Schulman, 1994).

Most importantly, be patient and do not react shamefully to your children misdeeds.  Teach your children by giving consequences but provide a warm and open environment for moral development. Have faith in them. Share your own moral struggles. Children need to know that it is not easy to resist temptations and to do the right thing. Everyone has to work hard at living up to his or her own highest standards but the result can be strong and morally upright children.

Adapted from a book by M. Schulman

Dr.Baya Mebarek, Psy.D.,LMFT