When turning on the news or opening a newspaper, we repeatedly hear about and see images of murder, theft, abuse, corruption, and exploitation. We question the acts from our armchairs and often engage in discussion regarding morality with a straightforwardness that fails to acknowledge the grey areas introduced by culture, religion and society. Ideas concerning morality, such as what’s right or wrong, what’s just or unjust, what’s legal or illegal, become difficult to untangle making morality difficult to define. We can however try to understand it by considering at least three independent pillars which are present from early on in childhood; being empathy, moral affiliations and moral principles or personal standards of right or wrong (Schulman, 2005). Consideration to these three pillars may also provide parents with a basis on how to raise their children to be moral adults in a society penetrated by 'amoral' acts.
Evidence indicates that social environments affect the way children develop. This means that the manner in which parents, peers and significant others treat and instruct children in their early years have a significant influence on the adults they are to become. During these early years, children are susceptible to moral influence and teaching. There is an ongoing debate whether morality is something that is taught through explicit assertions of right or wrong or whether it is encouraged through a social environment which expresses moral concerns and contains moral role models.
Empathy is the uniquely human ability to feel what another person is feeling; to experience their joys or sorrows as though it were your own. Empathic responses are said to be reflexive as children begin to show signs of empathy from approximately 18 months. Such responses can be extraordinarily powerful, such as being unable to ease the hurt or pain of a loved one. As a result, we often try to help and protect those with whom we empathise and try to comfort them when needed. However, empathy appears to be reserved for those we believe are similar to ourselves. For example, we are unlikely to show empathy towards someone we believe to be an enemy or competitor.
Encouraging children to practice empathy on the playground, in the classroom and even with the school bully means that they are better able to relate to and understand others. Parents may foster empathy through direct instructions, such as “think about how you would feel if you were in that situation”, or by providing more information about the other person, such as some of the challenges suffered by the other person. As mentioned, empathy is about acknowledging the other person’s feelings thus it is important for parents to educate their children on feelings by discussing emotions and their possible causes. In addition, parents may find it beneficial to discuss their own emotional experiences with their children. It is also helpful to acknowledge and speak about the stories of fictional and non-fictional people who demonstrate compassionate acts to help convey the message that empathic concern is good and natural.
Children may have a desire to help those they feel empathy for however they may feel insecure or unsure of how to go about it. Assistance from parents on how and when to help someone else often provides children with the confidence to move from a space of feeling to one of doing. Thus, empathy is a source of moral motivation by encouraging selfless acts to make someone feel better.
A second means of producing morality is through moral affiliation. This is when we identify with ‘good’ others, such as a parent, a mentor, a political figure or even a fictional character. As children, we have a spontaneous love for the goodness in others and, accordingly, have an interest in characters, such as Barney, who are examples of goodness. As we get older, we tend to identify with heroes and heroines who fight for justice and decency or who have backbone and determination to take charge and influence change. There are some teenagers, however, who are attracted to characters that are vicious and cruel. This is more so when these characters appear to be powerful. Possibly, these teenagers are more enticed by images of being powerful and dominating in their peer group or in their career. These role models or examples of morality are important as by identifying with them, they become a guide for our behaviour when faced with our own urges or temptations.
As a guide, these moral role models inspire us to be our best self. We are likely to want to live up to their standards, to be like them and to be worthy of their affection. Often, we carry these role models throughout our lives, such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or a religious figure like Christ. Our need to pay tribute to them through our actions and words can be intense and influence the way we choose to live our lives. It is by emulating these ‘good’ others and internalising their values that makes us, like them, worthy human beings. In addition, we often, through our affiliation with them, feel part of a moral community thus providing us with a sense of pride. Furthermore, by internalising the values of their role models, children, as young as two years old, begin to judge their behaviour as right or wrong. With this in mind, it may be beneficial to introduce children to ‘good’ role models from an early age.
Moreover, it is not surprising that children are most likely to listen to and internalise parents who treat them with affection and acceptance. When expressing rules, parents should provide children with the objective of a rule. By understanding the philosophy behind the rules, children can adapt the moral lessons to new situations, understand that being ‘good’ is more than blindly following parental rules and also be better prepared to resist temptations put forth by immoral authority figures. When thinking about internalisation, parents who use emotionally toned disapprovals and expressions of disappointment rather than physical punishment are more like to be internalised by their children. Additionally, through the mechanism of internationalisation, parents may teach children what to say to themselves in situations where conflict, criticism or even sportsmanship is present. For example, a child may be taught to tell her- or himself that ‘it’s not right to make someone else feel bad so that I can feel better’. Therefore, knowledge of emotions and emotional expression is an important component of fostering moral behaviour. An important ending note, parents should always criticise the action and not the child.
Thirdly, morality is also built on the formation of principles or personal standards of right and wrong, which appears to develop by the age of three. Principles can be thought of as rules of behaviour which we try to live up to irrespective of whether those in authority approve or disapprove. Often, our principles are maintained through our desire to create a more ideal world. Once our principles are established, we tend to incorporate this into our sense of personal identity and, consequently, we behave in a way that is consistent with that identity thereby inducing feelings of pride and a sense of personal integrity. Any behaviour inconsistent with this identity is likely to result in feelings of blame, guilt, shame, self-loathing and punishment.
Parents can assist their children to develop personal principles in various ways. One is to inspire children to envision a more humane world and understand that their actions contribute towards this vision. Children do not need a lot of help believing in goodness and are easily inspired to envision a better world. A second means of assisting children is to provide practical and easily understood messages. For example, ‘everyone is to have an equal chance to play with the toy’. This message enables a child to consider whether their behaviour will lead to a better outcome in the long run. Parents may also have discussions with their children in which they discuss moral dilemmas, such as, whether giving food or money is the better way of helping homeless people. A technique which parents of older children may use is to ask young adults to create their own sense of ‘goodness’. This technique may help them to recognise their own moral identity and reason out moral dilemmas and commitments. It needs to be said, that reasoning helps to determine one’s values and whether one’s behaviours are consistent with these behaviours, however morality is not ultimately based on reason. Morality is also influenced by biological predispositions and personal history.
In summary, we may consider morality to be based on our principles and our personal recognition of ourselves as being a good person, our empathic response to another person’s feelings and our identification with examples of ‘good’ others and belonging to a moral community. Parents who consider these three pillars, although not limited to, when raising their children may guide them to become moral adults who contribute positively to society. Morality is an ongoing process although there is a visible thread of character carried from childhood to adulthood. Furthermore, it is important for parents to help their children create a positive moral identity as new temptations and moral dilemmas are continuously arising. A positive moral identity is easier to develop when there is sufficient optimism and hope that things can be better.
Schulman, M. (2005). How we become moral: The sources of moral motivation. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 499-512). NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.