Raising a Moral Child: It doesn't take a village, it takes a city!

Raising an ethical child in our culture isn't so easy without help

Posted Jan 16, 2010

Trying to raise children in our culture is highly challenging even under the best of circumstances. We've probably all have heard the phrase that "it takes a village" to raise a child. I'd suggest that it "takes a city" (and not a small city either) to raise a child in general and a moral and ethical one most especially. All one has to do is read the daily news and look at what children and teens are exposed to via movies, television, Facebook, the internet in general, and sadly from each other and even within their own homes to be alarmed. I'd like to suggest a few tips to consider in your efforts to maximize the odds that your child and teen will be an ethical and moral person and hopefully, will do the right thing when faced with challenging ethical and moral choices.

1. We are ethical models whether we like it or not
We all know that children and teens learn through observation. We all do. We might tell our children how to act in the world and how to behave but they absorb our behavior like a sponge and usually model it. So, it is critical that we reflect on how we treat people from friends to neighbors, from relatives to clerks and busboys? How do we treat people even when we don't like them or are angry with them? Do we treat everyone respectfully and with compassion for example? Are we always honest, responsible, and maintain integrity? How do we behavior when no one is looking (or perhaps if we think no one is looking)?  That's a test of true character. We need to be prepared to take a hard look at our own behavior in order to come to terms with what our children learn from us. They are likely to do what we do rather than what we say.

2. It really does take a city and not a village
We all know that children are exposed to so much and we can't completely control all of the influences in their upbringing most especially as they get older. Who are the other important adults in the lives of your children and teens? What kind of teachers, sport coaches, music instructors, family and friends all together act as models for your children?

I have a 13.5-year-old son. I'm grateful that he enjoys boy scouts and can't get enough of the camping and backpacking available almost year round here in California. He has a great troop with many adult leaders who were eagle scouts themselves and love taking the boys backpacking across the high sierra mountains in Northern California where I live. They are a great influence on my son (especially since I hate camping and backpacking). My son's godfather is a Jesuit priest, a fellow psychologist, and a wonderful human being. My son's cousin is a young, ethusiastic, engaging Rabbi. They come over for dinner often as so a wide variety of other wonderful adults in our lives. I look at all of the adults in my son's life (and there are many when you add them up) and they all help support and supplement his ethical growth and development in ways that my wife and I can't do on our own. We are so grateful for their influence.

3. Don't be afriad of corrective feedback to our children (and ourselves)

We seem to live in an age where people don't feel comfortable giving corrective feedback to children and teens other than their own. I think this is a mistake. If it takes a village (or a city) to raise ethical chilren and teens and parents can't be everywhere at all times I think taht we should offer thoughtful corrective feedback to not only our own children but to those of others. This can be done in a respectful, thoughtful, and compassionate manner.  Children and teens need to hear from multiple voices what kind of behavior is ethically sound and what isn't. We also have to be able to take corrective feedback from others too. We probably all could periodically use feedback to help guide us and learn from our ethical conflicts and decisions.  

I'm sure that we all want our children and teens to learn to be thoughtful, engaged, and ethical human beings. We try our best to nurture and teach our children to do the right thing. But we must remember that we act as models for them (even in small and subtle ways) and so do the many other influences in their lives. Whatever we can do to embrace the city that we create around us can help. Luckily we really don't need to do it by ourselves. And for this, I for one, am very grateful.