5 questions about teaching ethics to kids
Rushworth Kidder, author of "Good Kids, Tough Choices," talks about the vital challenge of helping children develop moral fiber.
Parents love to tell children to “do the right thing,” but a lot of times, kids are left wondering what that right thing is. “Always tell the truth,” sounds great, but what about when it conflicts with “always keep your word,” in the case of a teenager who has promised to keep a secret for a friend. Which “right” trumps in that case?Skip to next paragraph
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Ethical fitness is as important as physical fitness, Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute of Global Ethics, argues in his new book, Good Kids, Tough Choices: How Parents Can Help Their Children Do the Right Thing. Morals, Kidder argues, require as much daily conditioning as muscles.
Whether it's a toddler eating someone else's toothpaste, or a teenager who's been asked to keep a secret for a friend that might hurt someone, Kidder suggests the best thing parents can do is to help children reason their own way through ethical problems. His book is divided into five sections by ages, from toddlers up to 23-year-olds, and focuses on real-world problems that actual families have faced.
Monitor contributor Yvonne Zipp recently asked Kidder five questions about teaching morals to kids.
1. How can parents engage their kids about ethical dilemmas?
I think we start having those conversations at a surprisingly early age.... It starts with working with the shared core values we've discovered over 20 years of research at the institute. Universal values of truth, responsibility, respect , compassion, and fairness. These appear to be global values according to the research we've done. To the extent you can help children understand that these in fact are their values, you don't have to impose anything. They're innate.
That's where it starts at the very earliest age: "This is what it means to be honest, and that is what it means to be dishonest." You do it in these situations as they come up in everyday life.
I remember when one of our daughters was about 2, we found her in a closet, eating her sister's toothpaste. Toothpaste all over her mouth and face, and there she was sort of staring up at us, and my wife said, “Have you been eating toothpaste?”
And she said, “Noooo.”
And there was a wonderful opportunity there to talk not only about honesty but also about respect for property that isn't yours.
2. You talk about ethical choices as sometimes being a case of right vs. right as opposed to right vs. wrong. Can you give an example and explain how parents can help their children work their way through these?
By the time kids move into middle school, they encounter dilemmas that we spend a lot of time as parents talking them through. These are dilemmas that are not questions of right vs. wrong, but of right vs. right. Each side appears to have a powerful moral case to it, at least from child's point of view. That's where parents need to be careful ….
Here's a quick example: You're a parent of a son who is 13 years old, but he easily could be mistaken for an 11-year-old. He spends the night with a friend and while he's there, the other mom takes your son and a friend to movie. They show up at the box office, and there's a sign that says, “12 or under, half-price.” The mom takes a look at your 13-year-old son and says, “Well, you look like you're 11, I'm going to buy half-price ticket." Now, what's your son to do? What's the right thing in that situation?
His range of opportunities go all the way from making a federal case out of it right at the box office …. to a meek and mild, “Oh, thank you.”