Morality, Ethics & Manners
A Few Suggestions for Teaching Your Child About Character
- Don't wait until your child is school-age or a teen-ager before you address character issues such as politeness, empathy and compassion. Even a 2-year-old can begin to learn to say "Please," "Thank you," "I'm sorry," "Excuse me," and "May I have that?" A 3-year-old can empathize with a child who is hurt or who doesn't have friends. A school-age child can understand why stealing is bad. A child of almost any age can grasp the benefits of helping others in need.
- Studies show that steady attendance at a church, synagogue or mosque or other religious institution can be beneficial to children. If your family attends a specific institution, use it as an opportunity to teach about its history how it benefits you, your family and your community. Sometimes children don't get a chance to ask many questions. Some parents find it helpful and enjoyable to down on the couch and go through children's versions of their faith's basic tenets (they often learn things about their faith they didn't know). This approach can give children the precious time and freedom they need to ask questions, wonder and truly understand and absorb what they are being taught.
But you don't have to be "religious" to teach your children about religion, faith and spirituality. If your family doesn't attend a religious institution, you can still teach your child about tolerance of others' beliefs -- that disagreement doesn't have to equal dislike. If you would like to teach your child tolerance and understanding about the major religions of the world (and perhaps learn a few things yourself), one of the books we've enjoyed is "What I Believe : A Young Person's Guide to the Religions of the World" by Alan Brown and Andrew Langley.
- Buy your children other age-appropriate books specifically dedicated to issues of morality, ethics, etiquette -- and discuss the information with them.
- Articulate your values and judgments to your children. What seems obvious to us often goes right over someone else's head, so don't expect your children to magically pick up difficult ethical concepts from you. Take the time necessary to explain and reinforce what you do and why.
- Praise your child for making good choices. Even toddlers can grasp that parents are proud of something they've done. Additionally, be gentle with your critiques; remember that no one's born knowing how to do the right thing. And when your older children misbehave, ask them to help choose the consequences.
- Deal with your children gently. Your children will be much better able to make positive, life-affirming choices if they have a good sense of self to begin with. If you help them discover the beautiful, powerful person within, this person will help guide them for the rest of their life. Don't forget to regularly tell your child, "I love you." "I like you." "I'm glad you're here with me." "I would never stop loving you." "I would never leave you." "You're beautiful to me." "You're a good kid." "I know you try hard." "I appreciate you." and, when it's appropriate, "I'm sorry." Some research shows that children from loving homes are much more likely to step in to rescue someone or to help someone in need, while people from abusive or less loving homes were more likely to stand by and watch.
- Monitor the family's entertainment choices. Some people feel they have no voice in what their children do, but this is simply not so. Set rules and enforce them. Monitor what your children read, watch, play with and overhear. Monitor their friendships. Don't let them watch movies with violent or sexual content. Know what they're doing and with whom they're doing it. Initiate discussions, be available for questions, and don't laugh at them when they don't understand something. When reading books to or with children, take an extra few minutes to discuss the content, and don't be afraid to disagree with the characters or to judge the characters harshly. Sometimes, misbehaving characters aren't just the witches and crooks. For example, the Little Mermaid disobeys her father, Cinderella's prince wants to marry her before he even knows her name, and Rapunzel's parents steal lettuce and then agree to avoid punishment by giving their child to the witch. Encourage your children to offer opinions on what happened and how better behavior could have helped avoid the problem.
- Set a good example. Give some thought to your values, and make sure that all the adults are (basically) in sync. Then act the way you want your children to act. Give the cashier back the change you were given in error. Let the other driver have the right of way. Don't make fun of people or gossip about them behind their back. Be a good friend. Don't lie, steal or cheat others. Don't swear or abuse drugs or alcohol in front of your children. Don't yell at the soccer coach. Treat your spouse and children with respect -- and be there for them. Tell them you love them. Let your children in on some of your decisions -- especially if the decisions were hard ones -- and tell them why you did what you did. Let them know they don't always have to agree with you, although they do have to obey your rules. Volunteer in the community. Apologize for your mistakes.
- Talk to your children's caregivers and teachers -- Make sure that other influential adults in your child's life are teaching character lessons, and that their lessons are similar to yours. Encourage local schools to offer classes in morality, and encourage your children to participate, to ask questions and to think for themselves. (See U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige's June 22 speech for his thoughts on the importance of character education).
- Play games in which you present a tough ethical situation, and let your children work out how they would handle it (there are games available that can give you ideas). Help them to see another viewpoint. Be careful about being judgmental, and about expecting too much for their age. The goal should be to give them food for thought -- so give them the "food," and then let them think.
- Volunteer with your children in the community (see the Safer Child advocacy page for suggestions). This doesn't have to be hard, expensive, or a chore. Volunteering can be fun, simple, and enormously beneficial to your children. It will help your children appreciate what they have, plus it will allow them to both better understand and contribute to their community.
- Donating: Your children can help pack up old toys, clothes and books for donating. They can help you buy gifts for donating at Christmas. They also can, if they want to, allocate a small portion of their allowance (with matching funds from you) to donate to a favorite charity.
- Use daily events as a way to teach. This doesn't have to be done in a heavy, preachy manner; you can make it fun and lighthearted. But as you and your children go through your day, read the news, read books, watch television, go shopping, or play with friends -- take the time to make sure your children are consistently learning about character, not just going through the motions. Resist the temptation to always say: "Because I said so," and take the extra few minutes to explain why things must be done a certain way.
- Do not bribe your children or pay them for behaving well. Children should learn to behave ethically because it's the right thing to do, not because they will be paid for it. Just remember that teaching these subtle lessons takes time and patience -- many adults haven't learned the lessons and never will. So your children will err -- try to avoid overreacting, and use the mistake as another opportunity to gently guide.
- Allow your children to grow up. Your children will struggle to learn about responsibility, morality and ethics if you do everything for them or if you consistently protect them from the consequences of their actions. Let them be in charge in age-appropriate ways, and also allow them to suffer the consequences of poor decisions (unless doing so puts someone in physical or psychological danger).
- Be there. Your lessons will fall on deaf ears if you aren't around enough to build the necessary bonds with your child. Be wary of the attitude that "quality time" is an OK substitute for "quantity time." Your child really wants and needs both. So be there -- listening and participating -- as much as you're able. Stay in touch with your child, and keep the lines of communication open. Once the door is slammed shut between you, it can be difficult to get it open again.
Obtain other helpful tips in books such as Teaching Your Children Values by Linda and Richard Eyre.
Reprinted with the permission of Safer Child, Inc. © 2000-2008 Safer Child, Inc. All rights reserved.
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