Raising a Moral Child

The well-being of any society is largely dependent on the moral health of its individual members. How can parents help their children develop and internalize a set of values that will contribute to a healthy society?

If you had to compose a list of skills children need in order to develop into healthy, well-adjusted adults, what would it include? You might think of any number of important attributes, but most would probably fit within the five broad categories identified by researchers Nancy G. Guerra and Catherine P. Bradshaw in their 2008 study. In past issues of Vision we have covered all but the last of these “core competencies for positive youth development,” which include a positive sense of selfself-controlgood decision-making skills, and prosocial connectedness. The final competency is a moral system of belief.

This last may seem strange coming from psychologists: most people don’t expect researchers of any kind to comment on morality. But it’s important to understand that rather than define the ideal system of belief that could be considered “moral,” psychologists simply set out to observe human behavior and describe its effects. In the words of Canadian researchers Lawrence J. Walker and Jeremy A. Frimer, “historically, morality has fallen outside the purview of science, more often addressed by religious figures, social commentators, philosophers, and societal leaders.” They explain that morality prescribes behavior, while science merely describes it. Alison Gopnik, who specializes in cognitive development, puts it this way: “Moral questions are about the way the world should be and what we ought to do. Scientific questions are about the way the world actually is and what we really do do.” And so, Walker and Frimer ask, “how can the descriptive method of science approach or inform moral prescriptions?”

Children participate in social relations very early, practically at birth. Their moral thoughts and feelings are an inevitable consequence of these early relations and the others that will arise throughout life.”

William Damon, The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Moral 

In studying the value of a moral system of belief, such researchers look at how the human brain considers moral questions and wonder how much of that capacity is innate and how much has to be learned. Of beliefs and behaviors that must be learned, they may go so far as to ask whether some contribute to mental health more than others. But they do not pretend to do more than observe the value of specific behaviors in contributing to a healthy society. Walker and Frimer are quick to acknowledge the boundaries between science and religion or philosophy: what researchers study is “the psychological functioning of persons experiencing, forming, and reacting to their morality.” In other words, they ask what aspects of morality contribute to individual mental and emotional health and to the well-being of society.

For Walker and Frimer, moral systems can be described as internalized sets of values—beliefs and norms about how people should behave toward others—other people, creatures, the environment. Scientists do not generally take an interest in studying whether, for instance, a moral system that includes one particular god is better than a system that includes another, although they have been known to study the comparative well-being of people who view their deity as essentially punitive as opposed to forgiving. But researchers generally leave God out of the picture and focus on how people interact with one another on the basis of the values they hold.

With this scientific perspective in mind, what aspects of moral thinking are known to benefit children and teens, and how much of a role do parents play in helping them develop a moral belief system?

The Back Story

It’s important to understand from the outset that some long-standing theories about how children develop moral thinking are being challenged. Mid-20th-century Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget believed that, until adolescence, children were essentially amoral and that their ideas of good and bad were almost wholly dependent on reward and punishment. Their ability to conform was said to be based on the selfish desire to avoid punishment or achieve a reward. Other theorists have argued that a “universal moral grammar” is innate and affects our thinking from birth. New research is suggesting that the truth lies somewhere between these two opposing views.

Piaget thought that children didn’t have genuine moral knowledge because he thought that they couldn’t take the perspective of others, infer intentions, and follow abstract rules,” writes Gopnik. “Modern science shows that this just isn’t true. Literally from the time they’re born children are empathic. They identify with other people and recognize that their own feelings are shared by others. In fact, they literally take on the feelings of others.” However, she cautions, this does not mean they are hardwired with an unchanging “moral grammar.”

Instead, researchers now say we are born with a general capacity to tell the difference between good and bad, and with somewhat of a preference for good over bad. This is offset to some degree by our instinct for vengeful anger and our tendency to view our own social groups as “good” in comparison to others. But fortunately we are also born with the capacity both to change and grow in the way we make moral judgments and to apply rules, for example, that help us extend empathy beyond our natural inclinations. Boiled down to its essence, current research indicates that there are two prongs to our innate faculty for moral thinking: the capacity for empathy coupled with the predisposition to understand and follow rules. Gopnik describes these origins of morality as “love and law.”

Although brain scientists might use slightly different terminology to describe innate intuitions regarding love and law, they generally agree on the broad categories. According to Guerra and Bradshaw, they would include ideas about harm, fairness, integrity and responsibility. Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph add “respect for authority” and “purity” to their list, with purity centering on the “regulation of eating and sexuality.” In other words, they say we have an innate tendency to embrace certain virtues of cleanliness and chastity while avoiding disgusting or taboo behaviors such as cannibalism or incest.

Haidt and Joseph also point to a second level of morality, which they call “virtues”—socially reinforced aspects of moral reasoning that need to be learned. For instance, the virtues of kindness and compassion would be the learned application of the innate moral intuition related to harm or suffering. Virtues, as well as various social rules, are typically learned through the example set by a child’s guides and caretakers—usually the parents.

Often,” write Haidt and Joseph, “these examples come from the child’s everyday experience of construing, responding, and getting feedback, but they also come from the stories that permeate the culture.” Of course, passing down moral stories isn’t enough. Children need practice in applying their principles in real life. As they learn to exercise empathy and follow the rules, their daily experience—especially the positive feedback they get from those they admire—leaves an emotional imprint that affects how central their values become to their sense of self. This builds their moral identity, perhaps the most important aspect of children’s development. Guerra and Bradshaw write that “moral identity may be the cement that binds moral thinking to moral action.” What they mean is that if a moral belief system isn’t deeply embedded in the way we see ourselves, we aren’t likely to practice its values.

Imprinting a Moral Identity

Many parenting approaches focus on enforcing moral behaviors simply by rewarding children for keeping rules and punishing them when rules are broken. This may seem to work with some children in the short term, at least when someone is watching and there is a clear and present threat of punishment. But a child whose moral behavior is only externally enforced doesn’t have the chance to develop the moral identity necessary to face a lifetime of challenges. Possessing the mere ability to follow rules is not the hallmark of a moral identity.

This doesn’t diminish the importance of rules, however. Rules are necessary for society to function, and they are an important part of moral reasoning: they give us shortcuts for moral decisions that are made frequently and help us coordinate decisions with others. Three-year-olds can understand and follow rules, and even very young babies already have the groundwork for rule-following in the ability to imitate. Very young children can also distinguish between intentional rule-breaking and accidental rule-breaking, and rules help them control specific choices that extend the basic universal moral principles discussed earlier, such as issues of harm, fairness and responsibility.

But laying down rules isn’t where teaching morality ends. Without the ability to extend empathy, there is no moral identity; both law and love are intertwined in a healthy moral system of belief. This is as true for parents in their teaching role as it is for their children as they learn how to behave. As parents, we can choose to teach the rules in ways that make it clear we love our children, or in ways that provoke resentment and anger. What children need is balanced parental guidance that includes love and compassion, mercy and patience.

Cornell University’s Kenneth Barish offers parents insight into how to go about reinforcing children’s intrinsic motivation to do good—to take on a moral system of belief. Like Haidt and Joseph, Barish points to decades of research leading to the conclusion that “moral development in childhood depends less on a child’s fear of punishment and far more on a ‘good socializing relationship’—a parent-child relationship characterized by secure attachment, parental warmth, and responsiveness to children’s needs.”

Barish cites studies showing that internalizing morality and prosocial behavior depends not only on “shared positive feelings between parents and children and a mother’s use of emotion language in conversation with her child” but on “frequent references to other people’s feelings.” Making and talking about mistakes does help children learn, but there are equally powerful potential lessons in success. Look for the moments when your child is doing something right, and encourage him or her by pointing it out. It may seem counterintuitive, but positive reinforcement really does have a more lasting effect than punishment when it comes to changing behavior.

Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson refer to similar strategies in their 2011 book The Whole-Brain Child. They explain that developing a healthy moral system of belief requires integration of the different functions of the brain, including what they call the “upstairs brain” (the areas responsible for logic, reason and control) and the “downstairs brain” (the areas responsible for reacting quickly to process and express emotions).

A child whose upstairs brain is properly functioning will demonstrate some of the most important characteristics of a mature and healthy human being.”

Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child 

Siegel and Bryson, like Barish, underscore the importance of warm, positive interactions as well as frequent conversations about how thoughts, behaviors and reactions are related. “Raise questions regarding morals and ethics as often as possible in normal, everyday situations,” they advise parents. “Offer hypothetical situations, which kids often love: Would it be OK to run a red light if there was an emergency? If a bully was picking on someone at school and there were no adults around, what would you do?” Their point is for parents to give children guided practice in thinking about the connection between their decisions, their behavior and the consequences, especially when it comes to applying rules within the framework of empathy and compassion. “Engage, don’t enrage,” is a helpful mantra for parents (an echo of the biblical directive, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger”). The moral principles children pick up this way will have a lasting influence on their moral identity, because they rest on the foundation of children’s love for their parents as well as their need for approval and their concern for the feelings of others.

Gopnik’s research confirms this. Empathy, she points out, is rooted in attachment and in the interpersonal contact we have with our early caretakers. As parents interact face-to-face with their infants, soothing them and responding to their needs, they are modeling the very first “morality” their child sees in the world. Parents smile at their babies, and babies smile back; research shows that even the act of smiling can go a long way toward making us feel happy. By imitating our expressions, babies learn about emotions and eventually also about desires, intentions and goals. Imitation is not only a signal that the capacity for empathy is likely innate but also a tool for extending empathy and building on it. “This intimate care is a model for moral concern at its most profound,” Gopnik remarks. “It is no coincidence that so many of the great moral teachers talk about love.”

Of course, imitation has its downside. Seeing love inspires love, but the same goes for negative emotions: aggressive and angry parents who pick at every failing trigger reactive aggression in children. Parents who model empathy are far more likely to see moral behavior in their children than parents who habitually resort to harsh physical punishment, scolding and criticizing. Kindness, empathy and consistent positive reinforcement are the most powerful tools for promoting moral conscience in children.

Limitations of Law and Love

Even with a good understanding of these principles, there are some traps to watch out for—some limitations in the human brain’s natural approach to both rule-following and empathy. “Empathy grounds morality, but morality goes beyond empathy,” Gopnik writes. “After all, crying yourself when someone else is hurt doesn’t actually help them any—sheer empathy can just be morally self-indulgent.”

Neither the most empathic emotional response, the sharpest awareness, nor the best of intentions can do very much for the social good if one lacks the strength of character necessary to take responsibility for one’s actions.”

William Damon, The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Moral

This is one reason we need rules; they help us act on our empathy in ways that make a real difference. But following the rules mindlessly, without understanding their original purpose, is a potential pitfall. We can be quite proud of our conscientious attention to rules, but if a rule is unsound or has outlived its intent, we benefit no one, including ourselves. Then there’s the inborn tendency to limit our empathy to those in our own social groups. Multiple studies demonstrate that when you separate people into categories or groups, even by nothing more significant than t-shirt color, they will begin to identify with their own group and dehumanize those in the other group. Even babies categorize people this way. We have to be actively taught to extend our empathy beyond instinct—to erase the boundaries between “people who are like us” and “strangers.” But how?

Gopnik suggests that we can take a page from respected teachers of morality. “In the Bible,” she writes, “the injunction to ‘love thy neighbor’ is followed by the more difficult ‘love the stranger’ and finally the even more difficult ‘love thy enemy as thyself.’” This goes beyond the human genetic imprint: it may even seem impossible. But there are accompanying injunctions to “meditate” on the law (defined as a law of love), and recent research indicates that this is a very useful practice.

Emotion researchers such as Richard J. Davidson have developed a secular form of meditation calling for an approach that, it turns out, is similar to the one described in the Bible: practicing sympathy and compassion toward a loved one, then extending it to a person you don’t know, and finally to an enemy. Davidson calls it “compassion meditation” and has studied its long-term effects on brain activity—measured in increased empathy or the healing of some forms of mental illness—using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

His findings? Compassion meditation does make it easier for people to empathize while also increasing optimism; it produces changes in brain activity that suggest an increase in the capacity to feel another’s joy as well as sadness, an increase in the capacity for altruism, and a decrease in the kind of personal distress that can lead to depression and get in the way of helping others. Moreover, this kind of thinking seems to bring about enduring changes in the brain’s structure: “It strengthens connections between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions important for empathy.”

This is also what Siegel and Bryson describe: a well-integrated upstairs brain that incorporates good decision-making, self-control, self-understanding and empathy is vitally important for developing a strong sense of morality, “not only right and wrong, but also what is for the greater good beyond their own individual needs.” If these components sound familiar, it’s because they are an echo of Guerra and Bradshaw’s five core competencies for child development, the first four of which are fundamental to developing the fifth, a moral system of belief.

Parents who intentionally cultivate these in their children do them a favor that may pay out in a higher-than-average level of mental health. In his 2010 book Mindsight, Siegel writes about a level of mental health in which we become aware that we are “part of a much larger whole.” Pointing to research on happiness and wisdom, he says “this sense of interconnection seems to be at the heart of living a life of meaning and purpose.”

The understanding that we are part of a much larger whole is part of a transcendent belief system (such as a belief in God that engenders an enduring sense of purpose and overarching meaning in life), and researchers have long studied the benefits of such beliefs. Family-resilience consultant Froma Walsh contends that transcendent beliefs are an important key to psychological resilience because they “offer clarity about our lives and solace in distress; they render unexpected events less threatening and foster acceptance of situations that cannot be changed.” A moral system of belief that includes transcendent beliefs can carry children—and indeed the entire family—through severe times of crisis: “Without this larger view, or moral compass,” says Walsh, “we are more vulnerable to hopelessness and despair.”

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Proverbs 22:6, English Standard Version

Walsh encourages fellow therapists to help families deal with crises by helping them dig deeply into their core values. Families should be encouraged to live in ways that are consistent with their beliefs because “congruence between religious and spiritual beliefs and practices yields a general sense of well-being and wholeness.”

Why does the need to connect to a greater whole touch us so deeply? Why are questions about the meaning of life and its moral significance so universal? Why do we have emotions of awe and wonder and the intuition that there is something larger than ourselves? Gopnik concedes that scientists don’t have the answers to such questions. But these intuitions are real, she says—as real as our impulses for law and love. All are known to be part of a healthy, moral system of belief. And even though these intuitions aren’t complete, the brain’s inborn capacity to change and grow gives parents the opportunity to help children build on them as they develop the skills they need to meet their potential.