This article was contributed by Expert Advisory Board Member Marvin W. Berkowitz, Ph.D., of the Center for Character and Citizenship at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Building Character: Moral Development
The moral character of children and adolescents has always been important. After all, no society, community, or family can thrive, perhaps even survive, if its members don’t have basic moral qualities necessary for effective and nurturing interaction. It is up to every generation to intentionally focus on fostering the development of morality in its youth, because eventually they will take over running the world. So, what is moral development and how does it happen?
Human morality is that which promotes the well-being, flourishing, and autonomy (rights) of everyone and the world in which they all live. What kind of person does that? And where do such people come from? There is no single recipe for what makes perfect moral development. But there are certainly some “ingredients” we can agree on.
Everyone needs to be able to think about and figure out what is morally right, even little kids. Ever heard a 3 or 4-year-old claim, “It’s not fair!”? That is moral reasoning, just as much as a physician struggling with life and death issues.
We all need to be able to control our own impulses and behavior and direct them toward what is right. Can you manage your anger when someone is baiting you and getting under your skin?
We must work to understand ourselves, others, and relationships between people. We need to know how we feel, what we think, and what works or doesn’t work. We all know some people who seem to have a very accurate sense of why they do the odd things they (and all of us) do. And we likely know others who seem not to have a clue about themselves, perhaps thinking they never make mistakes or are never at fault for the problems they routinely cause. How well do you know yourself and how hard do you work to do that?
Identity is your sense of self and what kind of person you are. And part of that is your “moral identity.” This about how important it is to you to be a moral (good) person. That seems universal, but sadly it is not. There are lots of parts of identity (like gender, age, race, intelligence, sense of humor). Morality is only one piece. For some people it is central and for others it is less so. Moral development requires a strong moral identity — morality must be central to both who we think we are and who we want to be. Do you make it a priority to be a “good” person?
We need to understand, form, support and repair a wide range of relationships. We need to be aware of the thoughts, feelings and motives of others. How good are you at “reading” others, even those very close to you? Do you know how to make new friends? How to repair a relationship with a friend who believes a false and nasty rumor about what you said about them?
We need to care about what is right. And we must feel appropriate negative feelings when we don’t do the right thing, or when we simply think about doing otherwise. Do you feel bad when you hurt someone else’s feelings or even think about doing so?
We also need a solid set of pro-social values. For example, we need to care about what happens to other people, even people we don’t really know. We need compassion. And we need to care about being fair. We need a sense of justice. Is it important to you that children are starving in your community? Do you care that some groups of people get the shaft in our legal system?
While this is not a complete list, it offers a good sense of how complicated moral development is.
How Parenting Affects Moral Development
So where does this stuff come from? How do we come to have (or not have) these and other relevant characteristics of being a good person? It comes from lots of places. But first and foremost, it comes from our families. And mainly from our parents or whoever takes primary responsibility for raising us. Let’s take a look at what we know about how parenting affects moral development.
There are some core parenting strategies that support a broad range of these characteristics of moral development. These include, but aren’t limited to, moral reasoning, conscience, empathy and self-control. If an acronym will help you remember them more easily, try DENIM. That stands for: Demandingness, Empowerment, Nurturance, Induction, and Modeling. Let’s look at them (briefly) one at a time and learn how parents can implement them in their daily lives.
Demandingness means to have high expectations for kids. But it is complicated. First, expectations have to be clear. Too often we expect a lot from our children that we unfortunately never tell them. Then we get angry when they don’t do what we expect. Second, we can’t demand things from our kids that they simply can’t do.
We must provide resources to help them have a chance –not a guarantee, just a chance — of meeting our high expectations. This isn’t a throw-’em-in-the-pool-and-they’ll-learn-to-swim-or-drown strategy. While we want them to know that it is important to meet our expectations, they also need to feel safe to fail. They need to know that you won’t hate them if they make a mistake or push them away if they misstep.
Empowerment is about feeding the very basic human need to have some control over ourselves and our lives and to feel our voices matter. We all need it, including our kids…including all kids. So, we have to learn to make space in the family for our tweens and teens to say what they really think. It has to be okay for them to do so…really okay. And we have to listen to them when they do…really listen. We have to make space for their voices and hear them. And we also have to invite them to join family discussions. Ask them to voice their fears and hopes. Give them the chance to make decisions, and more. It has to be part of the way we parent.
Nurturance simply means that we have to love our kids. It has to be real, and it can’t depend on our mood or circumstances or their behavior — unconditional love. We may hate what they did, but they have to know we still love them despite it. And the key is that they have to know it. It doesn’t matter if we love them if they can’t tell that we do.
Induction is a little more complicated. The word “induction” is a technical term for something really basic at the core of good parenting. It is about how we let kids know how we feel about their behavior, good or bad. Whether we are thrilled with them or furious with what they said or what they did, we have to react in ways that support their moral development. Whether we are yelling at our teen for having done something really stupid (“What on earth were you thinking?!”) or praising them for having done something marvelous (“I am soooooo proud of you!”), we need to do three things:
- We have to tell them (clearly) how we feel about what they did. Not about them as a person, but about what they did (“I am so frustrated with how you …”). “Frustrated” is how their actions made us feel.
- We have to explain why we feel the way we do, and do it in a way they can understand. (“I am so frustrated with how you … because …”). The “because” is the key, we are not leaving them hanging – they know why we feel as we do. It is also clear that an action created the feeling, It is not how we generally feel about them as a person.
- We need to highlight the effects of their behavior and how their behavior made someone else feel. (“I am so frustrated with how you upset your brother by picking on him because it’s something he already worries about. And this family is about supporting each other.”). This last step really underscores what moral behavior should – and should not – look like.
Modeling is pretty simple. Mahatma Gandhi once said that we need to be the change we want to see in the world. Well, as parents, we need to be the moral character that we want to see in our children. What we do and what kind of people we are is much more powerful than what we tell our children to be and to do. And it is not a matter of deciding to be a role model. We are all role models, whether we like it or not. There is no off-switch. Rather, the only choice is whether to be a good role model or not. Most adults tend to feel that their character strengths came from how their mother or father had modeled that character strength in their own lives. That is what influenced them to be the same way.
Hard Work and the Payoff
While parenting is not the only thing that impacts child and adolescent moral development, it is the most important one. This is critically important stuff and, like most really important stuff, it means you have to want it, do the hard work to make it happen, and patiently stay on course until it does.