As a society we’re faced with a great many challenges. One of the aspects of our humanity that helps us to navigate challenges is a solid sense of morality. Wherever our morality is derived — whether from a personal set of ethics, social expectations, or religious doctrine — it tends to help guide our actions in ways we consider to be positive.
One of our responsibilities as parents, guardians, and mentors is to instil in the next generation a strong sense of values. That said, while subjects such as telling the truth may seem basic, knowing how to effectively teach morality to children is not always simple. The practicalities of morality in the real world can be laden with grey areas and subtle applications.
So, what’s the best approach to take when imparting ethical ideas to your children? What tools and devices can help strengthen this aspect of their character? How do we tackle the sometimes quite complex nature of morality?
Use Supportive Resources
Chances are, your first foray into teaching children about morality is simply telling them an act is right or wrong. However, they’re likely to follow this up with questions that might well be difficult to answer. Indeed, children may well find elements of these lessons difficult to grasp and retain, if they are just being lectured — this is difficult enough for us as adults! It’s certainly in your best interests to use resources that support the information you’re trying to impart.
Books will always be one of the most versatile and accessible tools at your disposal here. Certainly, there are books written around specific moral subject matter, and others present situations that raise questions of ethics. The key in either case is to seek out entertaining and informative stories. For younger children, pop-up books can be particularly effective because these books use images in a novel way that encourages engagement and interactions. The Color Monster is an excellent example of a pop-up book that uses interactive imagery to reinforce how our emotions affect us and our actions.
Alongside books, it’s also okay to use movies and TV shows as supportive resources. Build a book collection that allows you to respond to teachable moments. The point in either case is not to seek to have the resource do all the heavy lifting. Use them as conversation openers and examples. Ask your child how they thought a character should have acted and why, share with them your own takes about why an action was right, wrong, or in a grey area.
As any professional teacher will tell you, trying to keep kids’ attention on a subject by simply talking at them for any significant period of time is a recipe for disaster! They get bored easily, and are more likely to tune out from the great moral lesson you’re earnestly attempting to pass on. But this boredom can also serve a vital purpose. It gives them license to explore ideas, engage with more physical and creative activities, and grow as people. When the talking has begun to grow old, you can harness their boredom by incorporating activities that help solidify the lesson.
Role playing can be really useful here. Kids are often keen to act out their fantasies, and you could introduce scenarios that offer moral dilemmas or insights into behavior. Don’t make it dull or forced, but give your child a chance to see how situations can arise, and how to approach them.
For kids aged around 6 and over, table top role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons or No Thank You, Evil! provide a fun way to confront your children with difficult ethical situations, and talk through how and why their character is making certain decisions. Perhaps more importantly, they provide a safe forum to demonstrate what the consequences of immoral actions can be.
Sports have also long been an excellent medium of teaching children morality. We often use the term “good sportsmanship” when talking about conduct, but what we really mean is a moral and fair approach to our play. Sports provide us with a set of rules to observe, and you can use these to demonstrate how — just like in real life — they are not in place to restrict our enjoyment, but to ensure everybody gets an equal chance to thrive.
Lead by Example
Incorporating play and utilizing books are good routes into teaching children about morality. However, these pale in comparison with your influence as their parent. Children are always watching you, taking mental notes from your example on how to behave, and using it to inform their worldview. You can’t take a “do as I say, not as I do” approach to morality with kids; you have to walk the walk.
Obviously, this starts with paying close attention to the choices you make in their presence, and how your choices might be perceived by them or contradict your previous lessons. If you intend to hold them to a high moral standard, you must exhibit this yourself.
However, this doesn’t mean to say that you need to always act in a morally “perfect” manner. You’re human, after all! Involve your children in your ethical dilemmas, talk to them about events that have happened during the day, how you acted, and how you could have made better choices.
You can’t underestimate how important it is for your children to see you as an ethically flawed person. This shows that while it’s important to set high standards for ourselves, it’s also okay to fail as long as we learn from it. Invite them to let you know, when they think you’ve acted in a way that is contradictory to your lessons, and start a discussion.
This approach to morality encourages an open dialogue between you and your kids. They will have difficult moral issues themselves in the years to come, and they’ll feel more able to ask for help or guidance.
Our kids are taking their first steps into a world that is filled with moral dilemmas. It’s important to approach this difficult area in a way that both demonstrates practical application, and asserts that mistakes will be made. By teaching children about morality with a variety of tools, you can not only impart advice but also forge a stronger bond.