What are morals
The dictionary definition of morality states that it is the quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct, a system of ideas of right and wrong conduct, virtuous conduct, a rule or lesson in moral conduct. Clearly morals and morality are therefore implicit in distinguishing against right or wrong but what are they in terms of everyday life and in particular what context do they take in parenting our children. How do they correlate with our own values and standards? Are there absolute morals that should be taught or is morality a moving feast and should we as parents, take it for granted or even expect that our children have some sort of moral compass built into them from birth?
Generally speaking morals are the foundation stone of civilization; the principles that a society adheres to. They can vary significantly from one belief system to another but essentially they still differentiate between what is acceptable and what is not – what is right and what is wrong. They form part of childhood instruction and provide a platform of shared understanding. Values, however, do not necessarily have such breadth. For instance an individual can have values and standards to which they abide and operate under but morality, moral codes of behaviour reach wider. An individual’s moral upbringing will often correlate with their value system but essentially whilst morals provide the compass by which a culture or society navigates life, values are an intrinsic and internal reference source or even plumb line against which an individual will measure up. For parents then, teaching children the moral code and helping them to understand the morality of society as well as encouraging children to develop their own values is an essential part of childhood.
Why are they important
There are a plethora of reasons why morals and values are important:
* They motivate people to choose right over wrong guiding decisions through life
* They help individuals make sense of the world giving them understanding and purpose, rhyme and reason.
* An understanding of morals and personal values helps foster an identity
* Morals promote successful relationships based on respect. People who work out of secure and stable moral codes respect others and are respected.
* They encourage an individual to contribute to society and play their part giving of their time and resources to help others and to promote goodness
* An appreciation of morality helps people become accountable for their own behaviour, to take responsibility for their actions and have a responsible outlook on life.
* Having a firm understanding of morals and values helps individuals become more emotionally secure and socially adept. Such people are generally more contented and have a happier outlook on life
How can parents foster morality in children
First and foremost parents are the natural moral educators of children. Children will copy and mimic what they observe, what they hear and the emotions that surround them. Parents then need to model moral behaviour leading by example and inducting a moral understanding in their children. Taking the time to talk about morals, behaviour and explain the principles behind these connects a child’s reasoning with their empathetic understanding. Parents need to not only “practice what they preach” but also “preach what they practice”.
In his book The moral child: Nurturing children’s natural moral growth, William Damon suggests presenting a child with “consistent expectations, guidelines, and mature insights clearly explained”. This needs to be done in an arena of respect where the parent respects the child and treats them like a person.
Talking about morality and behaviours with children can take on a number of forms. One of the most obvious is in the form of discipline. Clearly here the parent has the opportunity to state quite clearly what the expected norms are, to deter a child for deviating from the acceptable pathway and to help them understand where they went wrong. But carefully handled discipline has to operate from a platform of not only telling the child what is right or wrong but also giving them the why it is – explaining why ‘x’ is wrong and why ‘y’ is better.
Aside discipline though, parents should be encouraged to discuss behaviours during the day and their consequences. For example, talking about why child ‘B’ responded in such a way or why Mr ‘C’ was the way he was in the supermarket. When they are older, parents can use the daily news as an opportunity to further educate their children in morality by asking questions as to what they see in the media and debating the pros and cons for the decisions people have made, the likely consequences and importantly where they may have acted differently.
Challenging mind-sets can also help cement good moral fibre. Parents will not be the only influences in a child’s life and where lines are crossed, sometimes copying others, parents can gently challenge these modes of operandi. Where parents challenge a child’s mind-set though it is helpful if the parent is able to let the child see that they do understand where they are coming from. Stepping out of the picture and appreciating different perceptions, observing the whys and the wherefores are all part of nurturing and developing the moral fabric in our children.
Being a warm and responsive parent nurtures self-esteem in a child. It gives the child the message that they are worthy and valuable; that they count. A child that is loved unconditionally learns that they can love themselves. If they don’t love themselves they will not be able to love others. Ultimately it forges and understanding of how to treat others (respect) and furthers the child’s moral development.
Demanding certain standards of children can also encourage moral development. Letting children clearly know what is expected of them and why sets the bar for behaviour. Such standards (or goals) need to be high but not too high that they are unattainable and parents need to help children reach these goals by supporting them and then monitor whether they are meeting such standards or not.
Finally, parents need to operate in a democratic environment where the children’s voice is considered in terms of a meaningful contribution to the decision making process, conflict resolution and general discussions clearly within a framework that is suitable to the age and ability of the child in question.
Together these few strategies help foster morality in children from compliance to developing moral reasoning to encouraging altruism and raising self-esteem and therefore helping children set their own moral compass to navigate life on a valuable and morally virtuous course.