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Raising Moral Children

Raising Moral Children

Most of us want to raise children who are morally mature, children who are cooperative, kind, caring, responsible, and empathetic. Unfortunately, there is no single method for developing moral awareness in children, and most parents will try a variety of methods. For one thing, children are not the same, so what works with one child may not work with other children, not even with his or her siblings.

When do children first exhibit moral behaviour? Pro-social behaviour is highly correlated with an ability to delay gratification – not to expect wishes or desires to be instantly fulfilled. Yet interviews with pre-school children have shown they have already developed a sense of fairness beyond anything purely motivated by self interest. We do know that pro-social behaviour tends to be more evident in children whose parents frequently exhibit such behaviour. Television programs and books are also highly influential in children’s moral development.

Does discipline hinder or help moral development?

While research has not provided clear-cut answers, it has shown that some approaches to disciplining children are more likely to increase pro-social and altruistic behaviour that other approaches. In 1970, Martin Hoffman reviewed childrearing literature to determine whether discipline techniques used by parents had an effect on moral development. Hoffman tested two types of discipline:

- Love-oriented discipline – which involved withdrawing affection or approval

- Power-assertive discipline – which involved physical punishment and withholding privileges.

He found that neither worked. Parents who used power-assertive discipline were actually found to have children who were morally immature. Hoffman found that the discipline strategy that seemed to foster moral development was inductive discipline.

Inductive reasoning is a non-punitive discipline where an adult relies on cognitive reasoning to control or change a child’s behaviour. This includes –

· Giving the child explanations of why they need to change their behaviour, eg. showing the harmful consequences of their behaviour

· Using conformity-inducing agents that appeal to the child’s pride, wish for mastery, to be grown up and concern for others.

· Emphasising the feelings of others and needs of others to make the child more “other-oriented”.

· Pointing out the nature of consequences – “If you smack the cat, it will hurt the cat, and that make me sad”.

· Pointing out the needs and desires of others – eg. “Take that spider away; it is scaring your sister”.

· Explaining the motives of others – “He was only trying to help you.”

Can we encourage children to become altruistic?

Grusec and Redler (1980) investigated this in five to eight year old children. The children were asked to perform a task eg. give a marble to a poor child. Those who did were told they were nice and helpful, or nothing was said to them. The children who were told they were nice and helpful were more likely to share possessions later.

The researchers found that self-concept training had a greater influence on eight year olds than five year olds. Eight year olds are just beginning to describe themselves in psychological terms, so they may be more likely to incorporate the traits of ‘nice’ and ‘helpful’ into their self-concept than a five year old.

Parents’ reactions to wrong doing play a significant role in the development of a child’s altruism. Mothers who respond to wrongdoing by persuading a child to accept personal responsibility for what they did wrong and encouraging them to comfort their victim (rational discipline) are more likely to have more compassionate children than mothers who rely on forceful and punitive responses to wrong doing (Zahn-Waxler et al, 1979).

Rational discipline may encourage children to become altruistic for a number of reasons -

· It encourages the child to see the other person’s point of view (role playing).

· Having to comfort their victim makes them confront the distress they have caused (empathy).

· Saying they are sorry and conforming to what is expected of them will make them think they are “nice” and “helpful”, and so reinforce their positive self image and encourage them to perform other acts of kindness in the future.

Further Information:
The authors of this article are staff of ACS Distance Education. This school operates from both Australia and the UK, offering over 350 courses (Hobby and Vocational). See www.acs.edu.au, www.acsedu.co.uk
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