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.

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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?

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.

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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.”

The very fact he's come back to you and said, “What am I supposed to do,” opens up an opportunity for right vs. right conversation. It's perfectly right to take a stand. It's perfectly right also to be polite and respectful. Truth is coming up against respect. He's in the middle of a right vs. right dilemma. He can make a moral case for both sides.

The best resolution from the parent's point of view is actually not to resolve the dilemma for the child, but to get into a conversation that allows the child to discover how he can apply these moral ideas and come to a resolution. The son has been confronted with right vs. wrong situation, but he himself has a right vs. right dilemma as a result of somebody else doing something wrong.

Your task as a parent is not to correct the other parent. Your task is to say, “Here is my son raising a very interesting question that is troubling him. How can I help him think that through?”

One way of doing that is helping him understand that he is now beginning to get into a broad range of dilemmas that are right vs. right. We call them the four paradigms: There are dilemmas of truth versus loyalty, which is what this one is. There are dilemmas of the needs of the individual versus the needs of community (us vs. them); there are questions of short-term versus long-term that come up again and again. Finally, as every parent of a teenager knows, there are cases of justice versus mercy.

3. You talk about the fact that teens and tweens are so saturated with media that they're logging more than 12 screen hours a day, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. What are the biggest dangers inherent in those numbers? How can parents help their children unplug, at least somewhat?

Isn't that an amazing number? The danger is that this is coming at us very fast, and the research community isn't quite sure what they're looking at and how to assess it. It appears that when kids get really saturated with media, that has a significant effect, not only on their grades – and that is demonstrative – but on their own sense of self-satisfaction, their own comfort with who they are. The challenge there is a chicken and egg one: Are kids who are inherently unsatisfied finding recourse overdosing on media, or is it the overdosing on media that leads to the lack of self-contentment?

One thing that does appear to be clear. To the extent parents can limit – we're not talking a total blackout or media fast – to the extent that they can be “media firm” rather than “media lenient,” they can really help kids understand there is a lot more going on out there than simply philosophy described in 140 letters. There are bigger ideas than that. There are bigger things going on than constant visual stimulation.

The other thing I find very interesting is the concept I talk about in the book of continuous partial attention. We pay full attention to nothing, but are constantly paying partial attention to all kinds of things. You see that in the 15-year-old sitting down to do her homework on the computer with her ear buds in listening to music. At the same time she's texting her friends, and there's a TV going off in the corner. All the media inputs are there. She doesn't want to miss anything. If something comes up, she wants to be the first to know. If a message comes in, of course she's going to answer that right now, rather than wait until her homework is done.

The problem is that kids come out of it genuinely believing that they're becoming good multitaskers and that they're capable of doing all these things at once.

The research is still young, but it suggests that, in fact, they're not very good at doing anything. They're not very good at doing their homework, they're not very good at messaging, they're not really paying attention to the TV, and they're not really listening to the music.

When parents say, “You're not paying attention,” that's not the problem. The problem is quite the reverse. They're paying far too much attention to far too many things at once. As a result, nothing is getting your real concern. That's a real challenge. It's a world where we're conspiring to dilute every instinct for going deep. We're making sure that whatever happens stays on the shallow level.

4. Bullies have been around at least as long as playgrounds, but the dangers seem better understood by at least some parents and teachers today. How does the phenomenon of cyberbullying fit into the equation?

With cyberbullying we have the intersection of the media side and the bullying. And there the research is beginning – grudgingly, I think – to come around to the conclusion that the mental state of the child is enormously important. And if we're not thoughtful about the mental atmosphere, it can actually lead to suicide. It can lead to enormous problems. There's an old adage that you and I grew up with on the playground: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.” That old ditty. Well, names can harm you far more than sticks and stones. If we can erode and corrode the mental atmosphere sufficiently, I will want to take my own life, or I will take my AK-47 and take someone else's life.

The most important thing there is the question of moral courage: It's the third thing I'm trying to get at in the book. One has to do with a sense of shared values. The second has to do with making good choices. The third part of it is the moral courage, which I call standing for conscience: When a decision has been made, are you willing to step up to it?

What we've found from our years of research is that people can have very good values and make wonderfully thoughtful decisions – but if they don't have the moral courage to take action when their values are put to the test, that's really no different from having no values and making no decisions.

Courage is the catalyst. Without it, it's just nice theories.

Moral courage is a hugely important part of it. In question of bullying, we have a wonderful opportunity to help kids learn how to be morally courageous, how to take a stand, the value of speaking up, the risk of speaking up – because there is no courage without some risk. Yes, kids are exposed. Yes, yes, it's a risky thing to do. This is really one of the ways to establish moral courage.

Courage down the ages has essentially been a rite of passage from adolescence into adulthood. "Here's a spear. There's a bear in the woods. Go out and get it and bring it back and in three days, he's going to be a man."

The real question is: How do we get kids to move from adolescence to adulthood if there aren't any bears?

I think the answer to that is got to be through moral courage.

5. The examples in the book go all the way to age 23. Why go so far past high school?

I thought I was going to write a book that ended at 18. And then the more we heard the stories that were coming back from real parents, the more we realized, by golly, there's a lot of parenting going on well beyond the teens. A lot of kids are coming back home, a lot of kids are living with their parents.They're not kids anymore; they're adults.

And yet they're in a situation where there's a parenting model at work. The worst thing that can happen is to take the parenting model that you thought was effective when they were 9 years old and continue to use it when they're 26. The question is how you gravitate the conversation to a sense of higher responsibility on both sides, and how you become an objective confidante or sounding board – not a lecturer, but a listener and a facilitator of the child's own understanding.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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