'Children develop a moral code by observing what you do... not what you say'
Published 15/04/2014 | 02:30
How many of us think about our moral code, the set of values and beliefs that we live by? Do we ever even think about how we teach these morals to our children?
As a nation we seem to have a very ambivalent attitude to morals and values. On the one hand we espouse predominantly Christian beliefs and yet, on the other, we act, as frequently reported in the media, in very un-Christian ways.
There are many news reports of senior figures within our society lying, cheating and stealing. We see greed and selfishness abounding. We can also see many similar examples of dishonesty among friends, neighbours and family.
There is plenty of evidence that we actually follow the premise of 'do as I say, not as I do' when it comes to giving moral direction to children and teenagers.
Many of us don't think about our values and our morals because we send our children to school. We assume that they are getting moral instruction as part of their religious instruction, given that, by and large, those schools are denominational.
I wonder if we believe that if our children get moral instruction in school then we don't have to worry about delivering it at home too? I think that suits many of us who are too busy, too lazy or too uninterested to invest in understanding what we really believe in.
Right now, I can only assume that in many schools around the country the religious preparation for the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation are in full swing. I presume prayers are being learned and the nature and significance of the two sacraments are being explained to our children.
However, I'd be willing to bet that most parents don't know what the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation are actually about.
Perhaps it is because most parents are detached from the religious significance of these sacraments that they end up having a greater focus on the secular aspects of the events.
This is probably why we hear a lot, for example, about the purchase of Communion dresses and the decisions about what kind of family celebration to organise or how much money a child might receive as gifts for either Communion or Confirmation.
But the developing gap between the religious importance of events like Communion and Confirmation and their growing commercial and secular importance is really only an indicator, for me, of the growing disconnection that is appearing between what values we hope the schools are teaching our children and what values we actually believe in and try to live by.
I think it is time for us parents to become much more active in understanding and guiding our children in the core values and moral beliefs that we have. We need to be congruent in our behaviour, so that it fits with what we believe and what we want our children to believe.
The essence of moral development in family life is for children and parents to learn how to put ourselves into the position of others, by learning how to empathise with others.
We all have intense impulses to act that come from primitive, sensual emotions. If we all just continued to act according to our selfish desires then community and society could not develop.
Central to our moral development is the development of conscience. Developing a conscience is a process that begins in early childhood but doesn't really mature until our teenage years.
We may believe that healthy conscience development comes from clarifying our values, or having our behaviour rewarded or punished. However, it too comes from understanding ourselves and other people.
So, we need to build up our children's self-esteem, and help them to have an accurate picture of their own skills and strengths. At the same time we need to help them to understand and care about the needs of others. This same ability to see the world from someone else's perspective is central to conscience development.
So the real building blocks of conscience and morality begin in the early years of our children's lives when we first introduce them to the concepts of good and bad.
We recognise, for example, that a young child is essentially exploitative in his or her actions. They are just trying to get what they want and they are unable to consider the cost of this to anyone else.
Part of what they must learn is that their needs alone cannot be met, without also trying to meet the needs of others. From when our babies reach about 18 months of age we are probably relying increasingly on the word "no" as a tool to teach them about morals.
So we try to explain to, and show, small children that they can't always have what they want, and that sometimes they have to be considerate of other siblings, friends or us. This is the time when we are trying to help children learn to accommodate their impulses ("I want the toy") with the reality ("your sister is using it and you will get a turn in a little while").
We introduce limits, ideally, as a way of showing children that they must respect the needs of others. But in limiting and disciplining small children we must remain, ourselves, caring and understanding.
Despite our best efforts, most two- and three-year-olds come to know the difference between right and wrong by what gets rewarded and what gets punished. So "good" behaviour gets praised and rewarded and "bad" behaviour gets punished.
This early understanding of moral right and wrong remains until children are about nine or so, where their moral code is shaped by the standards of adults and the consequences of following or breaking their rules.
In the next stage of moral development, a child will be motivated to be good in order to be seen as "good" by other people.
So their behaviour is often motivated by the approval of others.
Usually we are learning about moral standards based on the adult role-models we see around us.
Next we become aware of the wider rules of society and we make our judgments about obeying rules or not in order to uphold the law and to avoid guilt. For most children this level of moral development is what pertains right through to adulthood.
Some adults (just one in 10 or so) will further develop their moral principles to the point that their individual judgment is based on self-chosen principles, and their moral reasoning is based on individual rights and justice.
So, while school and religious learning may be helpful in underlining our core family values, it is rarely central to how we develop a moral sense of right and wrong. The influence of parents is the single biggest factor.
Within our family we have the best opportunities to demonstrate, for children, how we cope with many of our human imperfections. So, for example, we can show how we can be slow to lose patience or quick to be gracious. We can show understanding, even when we are provoked. We can demonstrate that we can think the best of others, not the worst.
So helping our children to develop, morally, means that we actually need to think about our own actions. What we show our children, in the ways we interact with the world, is what they will use to learn how they too must interact with the world.
The actual ways we act are also so much more powerful than any messages that we (or their school) may give about the ways we should act.
When I give talks to parents I often demonstrate how much more power what we do (as a role model) is than what we say, with a small experiment.
I demonstrate to the audience how to make the "okay" symbol by touching their thumb and forefinger together to form an "O". Then I get them to make the same symbol using their right hand and to wave that hand in the air. I too am demonstrating this by waving my right arm in the air.
I then place my right hand on my cheek but simultaneously ask the audience to place their right hands on their noses. I repeat my request to them twice.
At this point, about 80pc of the audience will have their hands on their cheeks, confidently believing that they have followed my instruction. Rather than following the instruction, of course, they have simply followed my example.
So, let us be in no doubt that what we do, by way of moral example, is what our children will learn from. So, when we believe in something we need to act in accordance with our own beliefs.
We can't expect any religion to guide our children if we are not living by the same moral code that a religion will espouse. Children are very attuned to moral hypocrisy.
Equally, if all of our actions indicate that we don't believe something (like not going to Mass unless it is a special occasion) then we need to be congruent in what we say to our children.
Let's not pretend, for example, that Communion is a big religious deal, unless we show ourselves to have some religious conviction. Of course if a sacrament is not a big religious deal for you then why are you even putting your child forward for it?
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