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Why Teaching Values Isn't Enough

Helping children develop a moral identity.

These days we hear a lot of talk about teaching kids values. According to a major survey by the organization Public Agenda, more than six in ten American adults identified "as a very serious problem" young people's failure to learn fundamental moral values, including honesty, respect, and responsibility for others. A huge character education industry has cropped up in the last few decades, and much of it is devoted to touting values in schools and other settings.

It is, of course, important for children to learn values. But one big problem with this approach became clear to me several years ago talking to a few 7 year old girls who are friends of my daughter. I asked them how they would respond to a question in a popular character education program. "Should you be honest with your teacher if you forget to do your homework?" One girl said: "Do you want me to tell you what you want to hear or should I tell you the truth?" Another friend chimed in: "No kid is honest about that--who wants your teacher to get mad at you?"

I'm obviously for values, but research shows that my daughter's friends are not exceptions. By the time children are 4 years old, they often know certain values--that stealing is wrong, for example. Because kids tend to know values, they often feel patronized by lectures about values or just learn to parrot back what adults want to hear.

That's not to say--and this can't be shouted loud enough--that these children do not have a problem with values. But for many children the problem is actually living by values such as fairness, caring, and responsibility day to day. Sixteen-year-old Bill Heron knows that he laughed too hard when a friend put a fart machine under the desk of a new girl in class, but he didn't want to "spoil the joke" for everyone. Ten-year-old Jim Wright knows that teasing can be hurtful, but he believes that if he stops teasing he'll be tagged a loser: "I'll slide right into the sea of dorks." As a quite direct sixteen-year-old said to me: "I'm taking this class where they're trying to help us figure out how to determine what's right from wrong. But kids at my school know right from wrong. That's not the problem. The problem is that some kids just don't give a shit." These children don't need us to define the goal. That's easy. The challenges for us are much harder and deeper. To develop children's morality, we need to focus, minimally, on five basic capacities.

1. Moral Identity

We need to help children not only know values but develop a deep commitment to values. Values such as fairness, kindness and responsibility for others should be an integral part of a child's self or identity. The self-sacrificing acts of Europeans who rescued Jews from the Nazis in World War II, research by Samuel and Pearl Oliner reveals, were not matters of deliberation. They were acts that emerged from these individuals' basic self-concepts and dispositions. By requiring children to help around the house, by insisting that children be respectful to us, to their friends, to our friends and to strangers, by talking to children about why values are important--among many strategies--we can weave values such as responsibility for others into children's sense of self from an early age.

2. Managing Destructive Emotions

Often it is emotions, such as the fear of being a pariah or a "loser," that cause us to transgress. Developing children's morality is about preventing children from suffering high levels of shame, envy, entitlement and other destructive emotions and helping children manage these feelings.

3. Moral Reasoning

Another problem with simply teaching values is that children often face moral dilemmas, situations where values collide. For example, if a friend steals a calculator, should a child be honest with the teacher who asks her who stole the calculator, or loyal to her friend? Children need help developing moral reasoning, the capacity to sort through these moral dilemmas and problems. That means, in part, helping children take multiple perspectives and think about the precedents they are setting by their actions for their communities.

4. Key Social and Emotional Competencies
Morality is also about having the skills needed to treat people well everyday--knowing how to help others without patronizing them, say, or how to give feedback constructively. Adults can guide children in developing these social and emotional skills.

5. The Strength and Maturity of the Self
To stand up for important principles or to take responsibility for others may mean painful ostracism or other hardships. Cultivating children's morality thus also means nurturing the strength and maturity of the self (see post on April 15, 2009)

To be sure, developing these 5 moral capacities, in addition to moral literacy, is not a simple task. But unlike simply teaching values, it stands a real chance of helping many children become strong, caring and fair adults.


By the time they're three years old, kids often know that stealing is wrong: Eli H. Newberger, The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of Male Character (Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1999), 84-85.

For a helpful exploration of moral motivation, moral identity and the moral self see Gil Noam and Thomas Wren, The Moral Self, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Ma. 1993. See also Ann Higgins-D'Alessandro and F. Clark Power, "Character, Responsibility and the Moral Self," p. 101-120 in ed. Daniel K. Lapsley and F. Clark Power, Character Psychology and Character Education, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2005

Oliner studies: Cited in James Youniss and Miranda Yates, "Youth Service and Moral-Civic Identity: A Case for Everyday Morality," Educational Psychology Review 11, no. 4 (1999): 336; Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York: Free Press, 1988).

For a valuable discussion of the social and emotional skills needed to treat people well, see Amelie Rorty, "What It Takes to be Good," in Noam and Wren, The Moral Self, p.28-55

Richard Weissbourd is a family and child psychologist on the faculty of Harvard's School of Education and Kennedy School of Government, and the author of The Parents We Mean To Be, How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development. To learn more, please visit

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