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Ethics and Morality

Raising a Moral Child: Tip #1

It's not about rewards and punishments.

In a previous post, “10 Things You Can Do To Raise a Moral Child,” I listed ten things that can be done to raise a moral child. In this blog, I flesh out the first tip.

When I say that I teach business ethics, the typical response is, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Perhaps it is, if you mean, “Aren’t businesses unethical?”

So it may seem odd that I’ll look at ethics in business as providing one lesson in how to raise a moral child. Here goes: If a manger wants workers who are not only good at what they do but are also good in the moral sense—honest and thoughtful, for example—is there anything that can do to foster this behavior?

A study by Dennis Moberg, of Santa Clara University, looks at this question. He notes that there are at least three approaches to achieving employees who are good people. One approach, perhaps the most common, is to reward pro-social behavior and punish that which is unethical. More money or promotions are the stimulus.

A second approach is to punish anti-social behavior by denying promotions or wage increases or even by firing such employees.

But there is a third path to achieving moral behavior on the behalf of employees that is the most effective of the three. “A common conclusion [in the field of business ethics is that virtues are taught best not by employees being systematically rewarded or punished but instead by the experience of observing others (i.e. role models).”

This method is more subtle than rewards or punishments. Here the manager is a role model of integrity and fairness. Employees, in other words, tend to take their cues from their managers. If you want honest employees, be an honest manager; if you want kind, cooperative workers, be a respectful boss. An ethical culture in the workplace will tend to produce ethical employees.

There is nothing astonishing in this, but it is often overlooked when we think about how to raise a moral child. There are adages about sparing the rod and spoiling the child, but the real lesson for parents isn’t how to enforce good behavior but how to be the kind of person yourself that you want your child to be.

If you want to raise a moral child, be an ethical person yourself. Language may reinforce virtuous behavior, but words that aren’t reflective of a parent’s own behavior will fall on deaf ears or will more likely produce a cynical child than a good one.

So the first tip in raising a moral child is to give up thinking about rewards and punishments as key. The real hurdle is to become the virtuous person you wish your child to be.


“Role Models and Moral Exemplars: How do Employees Acquire Virtues by Observing Others?”, Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2000.

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