Raising a Moral Child

Tip #3: Affirm your child's good intentions.

Posted Jan 10, 2020

Philosophy can provide insights regarding raising a moral child. For example, Immanuel Kant, in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, wrote that "the only qualified good thing is a good will." By this, he meant that if we are motivated to do the right thing because our reason leads us to understand our moral duty, then what we have done is the right thing regardless of the outcome.

While the point of morality is to create a better world, sometimes things go awry. Morality, according to Kant, is measured not by results but by motivation. So while matters may turn out badly, we still have done the right thing if we have made a good-faith effort.  

While Kant goes too far in making goodwill the only thing that matters morally, the insight is useful nevertheless because it recognizes that the future can’t always be predicted accurately; sometimes things go wrong despite all good intentions but that shouldn’t deter us from striving to be a person of good character. It underlines the fact that the outcome of any action is unpredictable. Our good character isn’t undermined because things don’t always turn out for the best.  

This can be a hard lesson to accept if your focus is totally on the good you do. You have probably heard the adage "no good deed goes unpunished." It is undeniably true that sometimes good intentions turn out badly and we may even get hurt by them. Does this mean that you should stop trying to do good? Should doctors stop treating people because patients sometimes die from complications or not depend upon juries because sometimes an innocent person is convicted? Not at all, for as philosophers have taught for millennia, virtue is its own reward.

It is easy to be discouraged from being considerate, fair, and generous when things go wrong. This is especially true for children who are also being pulled to be thoughtless, unfair, and selfish.

The role of adults is to affirm a child’s good intentions. When intentions that are put into action go awry, a child needs to be helped to make better ethical decisions and to understand that virtue is its own reward. Of course, morality is ultimately judged by the good that it produces, but that result can be a long way off, something that children often cannot see. They need to be reassured that at least they tried to be good and, for the moment, that is good enough. They can learn from their mistakes. Tomorrow they can do better and be more helpful.

Psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt writes: “It’s long been clear that constructive feedback is a powerful tool for promoting children’s intellectual development. And academic growth requires both praise and criticism.” The same can be said for moral development.

So affirm and correct your child’s good intentions. They count as much as results. The world can sometimes be harsh but there’s no reason for a parent to be. When moral behavior is encouraged and guided, it is likely that the child will grow into a person who is helpful and finds that virtue is its own reward.