Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Moral Adults: Moral Children

Can adults develop a sense of morality?

In the Brother's Grimm fairy tale, "The Old Grandfather and the Grandson," a young married couple has grown tired of the husband's father, who lives with them, and who has become increasingly feeble. They stop inviting him to the dinner table and begin feeding him small portions from a dishpan.

One day they watch their small son gathering some bits of wood on the ground; he is building something. "What are you doing there?" asks the father. Misha says, "Dear father, I am making a dishpan. So that when you and dear Mother become old, you may be fed from this dishpan ."The husband and wife look at one another and, ashamed, begin to weep. From then on they seat the grandfather at the table and wait on him.

Americans have great faith in their capacity to improve their well-being. As many as 40 percent of Americans in the early 1990's belonged to self-help or support groups of some kind, and bookstores are rife with bold tomes empowering adults to tame fears, dispatch obsessions, and deal with people they can't stand . When it comes to ridding ourselves of painful flaws, and mood improvement, our faith in the plasticity of personality appears to be endless.

Yet most of us don't even have in our heads a concept that is far more important to our children, our society, and ultimately to our own well-being: the possibility of our own moral growth. Most of us believe that at some point in childhood our moral qualities are essentially locked in. While we might push ourselves to be more honest and generous in specific situations, we see our moral character as largely, if not entirely, set in stone.

Many adults, to be sure, change very little in the course of adulthood. There are narcissistic adults who never develop any real capacity to understand others, and there are adults whose compassion and integrity remain steady and deep throughout life. But to imagine moral character as unchanging is to grossly misunderstand the nature of most adults' lives.

For the reality, according to fresh research, is that our moral qualities as adults can vacillate depending on many factors, with large consequences for our children's moral development. While many of us lose our ideals over time, others of us do not develop serious ideals until well into midlife. Some adults become wiser, more able to discern important moral truths; others' notions of fairness become more formulaic and coarse. Some adults become more selfish while others become more altruistic-new research shows that the elderly, contrary to popular belief, tend to become more other-centered. (King Lear does not develop any real feeling for others until he nears death.)

While Americans these days worship young people who are often astoundingly selfish, and obsess about the losses that come with aging, it is often not until well into adulthood that we tend to develop our most important qualities, including empathy for many kinds of people leading many kinds of lives, the capacity to love others despite their flaws, the ability to shield others from our destructive qualities, the ability to appreciate our ancestors and to plan for our descendants. Based on his studies of adult lives, psychologist Gil Noam questions the whole notion of moral maturity. Every stage of adulthood, Noam argues, creates new vulnerability to regression, disintegration, and character rigidity, as well as new strengths.

Sometimes adults undergo entire self-reorganizations--and sometimes these changes have a powerful impact on their capacity to cultivate moral qualities in children. When children become self-absorbed and impulsive in their teen years it is widely recognized as a sea change-we view adolescence as a restructuring of the personality, a reorganization of the self. Yet when adults in midlife become self-absorbed and impulsive we call it "a crisis" or say they have "issues." Some of these adults, though, are in fact developing fundamentally different self-understandings and sources of meaning that radically reorder their relationships and boost or corrode their ability to mentor.

Perhaps nothing tests adults and shapes adult development more than the experience of parenting. We as parents don't influence children in a simple, linear way: we are engaged in complex relationships with children-and enmeshed in complex family dynamics-that constantly affect how we respond to children. Adults and children powerfully affect one another's emotional and moral development. Sometimes, for example, parent-child relationships spiral downward as a parent's own developmental stage destructively interacts with a child's developmental needs. One reason that relationships between adults and teenagers can become so toxic is that adults can be caught up in the intense self-concerns of a midlife crisis at exactly the same time that their children are caught up in the intense self-concerns of adolescence.

Yet, in the course of parenting, other parents discover for the first time powerful capacities for empathy, sacrifice, and moral awareness. In all sorts of ways, parenting can lift parents' moral blinders. Parents may learn to deal with their selfish qualities or defects because they see the damage they cause to their children, or because they see these qualities reflected in their children's qualities or actions-- as Misha's parents do in the brothers Grimm fairy tale-- or as they come to admire qualities in their children that they lack.

As parents and mentors, it's vital to see ourselves not as static role models but as imperfect human beings, continually developing, in our dynamic relationships with our children, our own moral and mentoring capacities. The subtleties of appreciating and being generous with others, acting with fairness and integrity, and formulating mature and resilient ideals are a life's work: "There is nothing noble in being superior to someone else," the civil rights leader Whitney Young said. "The only real nobility is in being superior to your former self."


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


Brothers Grimm fairy tale "The Old Grandfather and the Grandson": Fairy Tales by the Grimm Brothers, Authorama: Public Domain Books,

Percentage of adults belonging to self-help or support groups: Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community (New York: Free Press, 1994), 71.

On some adults not developing serious ideals until midlife: : See, for example, Anne Colby and William Damon, Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment, The Free Press, New York, 1992

Research showing that the elderly become more other-centered: Kevin Cool, "New Age Thinking," Stanford Magazine (Stanford Alumni Association), July-August 2004, 54, citing the findings of Stanford University researcher Laura Carstensen.

The development in later adulthood of moral strengths including empathy: For a related discussion, see Louis Menand, "Name That Tone," New Yorker, June 26, 2006.

Gil Noam on moral maturity in adult life: Gil G. Noam, "Reconceptualizing Maturity: The Search for Deeper Meaning," in Development and Vulnerability in Close Relationships, ed. Gil G. Noam and Kurt W. Fischer (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996).