First think about why you’re teaching morality?
Most parents want their child to be kind, thoughtful and decent to other people and to know right from wrong. In short, to be moral. So the question is, how do you teach a child to be kind? All parents are attuned to screams of, “I want it, give it to me!” and “he hit me!” No matter what we’re doing or where we are, our ears prick up those sounds quicker than three year olds hearing the word, ‘ice cream.’ We always hope our child is going to behave nicely, to be kind to their fellow playmates and thoughtful. Frequently though, particularly when they are little what we hear more of are screams of ‘I want it! It’s mine!’ Then suddenly the picture of our grown child as the manifestation of love, generosity and compassion, fades to one of Attila the Hun.
Now I’m not suggesting teaching our little ones morality is going to get us up there with the likes of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa, although that would be nice. I’m sure most parents would be happy with a child of theirs who knows clearly the difference between right and wrong, tries hard in the grey areas and is generally a decent person to be around.
So how do you teach morality and more importantly, when? Well, we’ll get to that in a minute but right now I want to let you know what got me thinking of the whole morality question.
Recently we added to our family and got a lovely new miniature Dachshund puppy of ten months old who we’ve named Digby and who is exceptionally cute. In order to prepare for our new arrival, I downloaded a book on dog training and have been leafing through pages of information about how to get little Digby to stay and lie down and do all those other important things.
Having said that, one of the pages I came across had me killing myself laughing, not because what it said was all that silly but because somebody actually needed to say it at all. You see, it went on at length to explain why it was you couldn’t teach your dog morality. Apparently, dogs simply don’t get the idea of sharing. Well, who knew? All I could see as I read it was some new dog owner going red in the face, desperately trying to get her Fido to understand that snatching a bone from another dog simply wasn’t nice. “You’re being nasty to Dodger! Share! Stop it!
Ok, we can all have a laugh at the expense of doggie parents trying to teach their Basset hounds, Labradors and Shitzus the importance of being nice but there are parallels in the world of parents and kids. You see, I can’t tell you how many times I see parents launch in to lectures about the grey areas of morality with kids who can barely yet understand the concept of ‘no,’ let alone the why’s behind the ‘no.’ If you can’t figure out why your two year old won’t ‘understand’ you and do the right thing because well the right thing is obvious, then I’m always here to help, so please check out my services.
Believe it or not children are hard wired to be good
However the good news is that children are luckily very different from dogs and they have an innate preference for the good guys in life. In a study at the Infant Cognition Centre at Yale University, researchers found that 8 month old babies faced with a character who had aided one puppet and obstructed another, clearly showed a preference for the good puppet, the one who’d helped out. They also showed an interesting inclination to want to punish the bad character but that’s another story. If you’re interested you can read all about the study here http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
So what we can learn about morality is that babies are hardwired for it. Surely though that should mean that teaching it to children means doing it at a time when their ability to determine right and wrong matches their level of understanding of the situation. As their understanding of their world grows, so will their ability to figure out morality.
As my doggie training book aptly pointed out, when you try and teach your dog morality, all the dog hears is ‘blah, blah, blah, no, blah, blah, blah.’ When you try and teach an eighteen month old or two year old morality, they hear much the same. But it is the repetition, done in simplistic terms and so often that you start hearing yourself in your sleep, that makes the impression. That requires exceptionally simple explanations over long periods of time. If you start when your child moves from babyhood to being a toddler, by four years old you should have a child that understands basic morality, though they’re still learning of course.
Teaching morality then needs to be simple and done at the right time but that message is frequently muddled by our society at large, which seems to think that explaining complex ideas to very small children is a good idea. One mom in a class I gave, asked me what to do about her two year old son who was just not listening to her. Apparently he would remove all the DVD’s at the local Video store and pull them all over the floor. After I’d delved a bit in to the situation, I found out that she’d tried many times taking him on her knee and explaining to him why he shouldn’t do that. She’d explain patiently just how unkind it was to the lady who had to clean them up after him and how by his actions, the store looked messy. She wanted to let him know all the things that were wrong with this thoughtless kind of behaviour. But what should I do, she asked? He just doesn’t seem to listen.
The bottom line is that he was refusing to listen to ‘no‘ because it had not consistently been pointed out yet that ‘no’ did indeed mean, ‘no.’ Instead, mom with the best of intentions had launched in to a long lecture about the ‘why’s of the ‘no,’ long before it really had any benefit or even at a point where her little guy could understand. In fact, all the long winded explanations were working against her because all she was doing was giving a whole load of cuddles and attention to a behaviour she’d rather see the last of, which I pointed out to her would pretty much guarantee that the behaviour would continue.
So what should you do? Show, don’t tell
So what should she do instead? Well show, don’t tell. Telling is abstract. Showing is physical and as such, much easier for a little guy to grasp. Lecture and you get a confused kid. Show him by saying ‘no’ firmly and then picking up the DVD’s with him and handing them back to the clerk will, with time and patience, result in a clean floor and eventually a greater understanding of the why. As the child grows, a verbal explanation eventually supersedes a physical one. So when it comes to how do you teach your child to be kind, keep in mind the active rather than the passive. Show don’t tell. Then one glorious day, they’ll just know what to do all by themselves and you’ll have a compassionate, kind and thoughtful human being standing in front of you, Mother Theresa or Gandhi notwithstanding of course.