Many parents are concerned about laying a good foundation for their children that they might grow to become moral, responsible adults. In part, parents often rely on Sunday school or other types of religious education to help convey the message of morality. In raising moral children, there are a few points that bear remembering.
First, child rearing is a developmental endeavor. That implies that children progress through moral stages and understandings at a certain (variable) pace. There is little evidence that children can be hurried along the developmental journey. There is a developmental track for moral development, social development, and cognitive development. All areas of development come into play in our efforts to raise moral children. Jean Piaget, the famous developmentalist, reminds us that young children have not yet arrived at the stage of formal, symbolic thought.
Many parents will attempt to moralize with children in abstract, moral discussions-suitably “watered-down,” or so they think, to meet their kids where they are. However, if research on cognitive development is at all correct, it is unlikely that children are being “converted” to a moral or religious stance. They may say “yes” and seem to get the point, but it is unlikely that they do.
A much better approach is to work on actions involving simple reciprocity, things like sharing of toys and friends. Young children are naturally egocentric. By involving them in such simple understandings as “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” children come to see simple morality as pragmatic, paving the way for the later stages when formal reasoning makes children receptive to more abstract appeals.
In terms of social development, Erik Erikson would no doubt point us to those natural conflicts that occur at each advancing stage of development. In the early stages when a child struggles between trust and mistrust, and shame and guilt vs. autonomy, children need reassurance. If they are subjected to constant moralizing and put-downs, they will likely adopt an outlook of inferiority. In addition, they will become increasing likely to look to an outside locus of control. The best way to raise autonomous, responsible adults is by acceptance as opposed to constant correction. Erikson’s theory predicts that someone might “get stuck” at an early stage if that stage is not successfully navigated.
Furthermore, problems may appear during the adolescent identity crisis of even later in adulthood. Lawrence Kohlberg was a theorist of moral development. His theory reminds us that young children do not see the world in such philosophical categories as moral or immoral. Here the focus is on reward and punishment. What is good is what brings a reward. They also develop a sense of parity; one hand washes the other. “If you are nice to me, I’ll be nice to you,” is one of the earliest orientations. In late childhood, children reach a stage of wanting things to be fair and law-driven. Here they are concerned about following the rules. It is not until adolescence or later that kids begin to see right and wrong in truly moral terms. From this perspective, the best we can do is “play along” with development. We must never expect young children to have a truly moral view of things. This is something they are “nurtured into.”
If caregivers follow the rule of gentle persuasion and fairness, children will naturally move into an understanding of morality. What about religious instruction? James Fowler has spoken to this at length. Combining theories of earlier theorists, he has noted that the earliest claim to faith is affiliative. Children make “professions of faith” to please their parents and feel a sense of unity with them. It is very doubtful that children really understand the notion of freely chosen conversion before early adolescence. How do we put all of this together to get some direction?
Follow the developmental curve. Meet children where they are. Do not moralize with them, and do not expect more than they are able to deliver. Keep discipline mild, and aim it towards learning such socialization skills as sharing in a polite and caring way. Do not expect little ones to be too selfless. Remember that childhood is not a race; the stages cannot be bypassed. Accept children where they are developmentally, and provide a warm nurturing environment. If we “teach from behind,” letting the child’s natural developmental stages take the lead, we will be doing the best we can to raise moral, responsible children who grow into moral, responsible adults.