Raising a Moral Child: Tip #2

Set consistent standards of right and wrong

Posted Jul 01, 2019

In the Middle Ages a church bell fell and killed the bell ringer. The bell was put on trial, found guilty and smelted. In another case a horse that kicked a farrier in the head was found culpable for its actions and put to death, not because it was dangerous, but because it was morally responsible and deemed a murderer.

The stories strike us as preposterous. An inanimate object can’t be guilty because it lacks agency; it doesn’t choose to fall. Instead of blaming the bell, we look to find the cause of the accident elsewhere, such as a rope not properly secured or frayed. These contingencies have nothing to do with the bell willing itself to fall.

The difference between humans and inanimate objects (and, largely other animals), is that we believe that people can make choices and can be held accountable for those decisions. Those choices can be good or bad, thoughtful or careless. What happens, though, when a child is brought up in a chaotic environment, when there is no assurance that things are predictable?  

Such is the home of alcoholics, which plays havoc on the lives of children. Aside from the physical danger in which they are often put, there is the psychological damage. Children of alcoholic homes often feel as though they cannot control their own lives and that are victims of circumstances. As a result, they “generally feel less personal responsibility for and less control over the events that shape their daily lives. This feeling of being under control of others generally leads to a lack of initiative and achievement in maneuvering the world to one’s advantage,” writes school counselors Phyliss Post (“School-Age Children of Alcoholics and Non-Alcoholics: Their Anxiety, Self-Esteem, and Locus of Control,” Phyllis Post and Bryan E. Robinson, Professional School Counseling).

Homes of alcoholics are an extreme example of unpredictable environments. But they aren’t the only places in which a child doesn’t know from day-to-day what is expected of them. Raising a moral child requires consistency. This isn’t the same as being inflexible. Rather it is to let the child know what is expected of them in terms of how they treat others and the standards by which they need to measure themselves. In his essay, “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The maxim makes sense only if the adjective ‘foolish’ remains. It isn’t consistency that’s the problem but a mindless constancy.

Dependability facilitates planning and therefore offers the possibility of shaping the future as we wish. This means that your child is more likely to take responsibility for their actions and less likely to act like a victim. Also, there is security in consistency since we can anticipate risks and rewards. This quality becomes foolish, though, when it is applied without a concern for the particulars of a situation. Since no two situations are identical, judgment is needed to know which value to apply, when and to what degree. Philosophers call this ‘practical wisdom.’