Oasis Magazine Articles

Teaching Your Child Moral Values

By Riju Shrimali

June 01, 2014

There is no simplistic, universal, fit-forall definition of morality. Some believe that morality is relative and depends to a large extent on one’s society and culture. If one is surrounded by friends who are given to gambling or bribery, one finds these acceptable although in the same society adultery would be a complete no-no. In other societies adultery could be ignored as a personal choice
but drinking could be a moral taboo. There are some values which emerge with the progress of civilization, such as kindness to animals and development of consciousness against torturing them for entertainment.

Morality is often confused with code of conduct such as not maintaining cleanliness at public places or abstaining from honking on streets. However, morality is deeper than personality or social behavior. It is a subject replete with theories, views and opinions. Therefore turning our kids into human beings with high moral standards is an uphill task. Benchmarks are too few
and too high. This brings us to a natural question – are kids born with moral values, given the often heard ‘kids are the highest form of human innocence and purity’?

About 6 years back, when my elder son (then a toddler), had his first fight over a little red ball with his colleague in a play group, I was almost sure that babies have no sense of some obvious facets of morality such as caring and sharing. When I had almost given in
to the opinion that ‘babies are highly selfish and only concerned with their survival’, my toddler surprised me by running to his baby brother (then an infant) with his milk bottle when the younger one woke up wailing. How the littlest children differentiate right
from wrong before language and culture has exercised their influence? Do children understand right from wrong at all…or good from
bad…or selfishness from altruism?

Tiny children are psychology’s most powerful muses. In one research study, scientists designed a puppet show for 6-10 month
olds, wherein they showed 2 puppets. Puppet A helped a toy elephant in distress while puppet B ignored the same toy. After the end of the show, both puppets came together to offer candies to the toddlers. Most toddlers accepted candy from the helpful puppet A and rejected puppet B, showing that probably babies are born inclined towards ‘good’. Genetic twin studies suggest that anywhere from a quarter to more than half of our propensity to be giving and caring is inherited. There have been numerous experiments and consequent theories. Scientists may argue over inborn morality but most of them agree that children as young as 6 months old can understand intentions of persons they are interacting with. Gynecologists have maintained that babies could penetrate into moods of their mothers even if mothers try to mask it. Your baby knows more than you think she knows! Since children, even infants, are highly sensitive, they gauge what action of theirs will bring them adult’s acceptance and try to channelize their behavior accordingly. Therefore by the time they are 2 years old, they show signs of differentiating right from wrong as defined in their immediate adult world – a big responsibility on the adult world!

Almost every parent wants his/her kid to be successful with high moral standards. In a recent study, across the world, most parents preferred values such as caring, sharing and compassion than economic or social achievement for their children. Despite our awareness and good intentions, teaching children to care about others with ‘no strings attached’ is no simple task. Should we just praise our kid or offer her a reward? Should we punish and if so then what should be the frequency or intensity of punishment? These and such questions boggle us.

When I was growing up, 2 or 3 periods a week was assigned to the subject ‘moral science.’ Schools have done away with
it in many countries because they feel that the subject indoctrinated children with confusing ideas and hindered the formation of ‘unique, individual personalities’. Many critics even feel that high doses of morality in children’s literature (stories or poems) could make a child quixotic. While morality is a multi-layered subject, some aspects of it such as generosity, caring, helping are universally accepted ‘good’ or ‘right’. Matters become more complicated gradually. My sons, now 5 and 7 come home with questions – “Sam wishes to copy my spellings during Thursday tests. Should I help him or should I say no?” or “Sam punched me in the field. It hurts but I cannot tell the teacher because it is bad to tell on others…what should I do?” As children get older, so do our dilemmas. My husband says “children grow up slowly so that the parents could keep pace with all the learning/relearning/unlearning needed
for parenting their progeny.” Let us enjoy this process of pondering over our moral practices and remodeling them, if needed.

Here are some tips that experts offer:

• To reinforce caring as the right behavior, praise is more long lasting than rewards. While reward tends to encourage a behavior only when the carrot is offered, praise seems to ingrain the value more deeply.

• Even while praising, there can be 2 approaches. Approach 1 is to praise the action, “Your behavior was remarkable. You did a great job in helping Sam.” Approach 2 is to praise the child rather than the action, “You are such a caring/helpful human being. You helped Sam and made him feel better.” Experts say that approach 2, i.e. praising the child works better in instilling the value into his/her character than just praising the action.

• Reinforcing a moral value with approach 2, as mentioned above, works best for children in the age group of 7-10 or thereabouts. If they are too young, they may not be able to internalize the praise and as they grow older, they become more impervious to deeper character formation.

• Actions speak louder than words - and in case of morality teaching, often mum’s word! In an experiment among 7-10 year olds, children were divided into three groups. In group A, the teacher spoke nothing but helped a person in distress. In group B, the teacher spoke about helping but showed no live example. In group C the teacher spoke about helping but in live demonstration he refused to help a person in distress. The children in each group were assigned a task, a few months after this lecture. Children in group A were most helpful during the task than those in group B or C. Values can be best taught through personal examples.

• Punishment is a tricky area. Children vary greatly in their response to punishment. In more simplistic terms, children are either prone to guilt or shame. A guilt prone child sees punishment as a reform methodology and tries to rectify his actions. A shame prone child sees punishment as a form of rejection and may sink into low self-esteem. As parents we ought to modify criticism or punishment according to the personality of our children.

• Don’t be in a hurry to reform. Let the child go through his/her cycle of emotions. It is likely that after he/she has displayed greed or selfishness the child will herself lament her behavior without external assistance. I realized this when my second son started his playgroup. While I used to get upset with my older son for being selfish or fighting over toys, I let my younger son be as selfish and possessive as he wished to be. Once he realized that there was no threat of someone taking away his prized possession forcefully, he became more open to inviting his friends to play with it.

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