Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sue Scheff: Why Actions Speak Louder Than Words When It Comes to Building Moral Development

My first teaching job almost three decades ago was with a group of adorable six and seven-year-olds in Saratoga, California. I was also working on my doctorate at the same time and was fascinated with Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s new research on moral development. He believed morality is acquired in stages and could be increased by posing moral dilemmas to kids to stretch their moral reasoning.

So I read everything I could on his theory and began using his ideas with my students. After several lessons I noticed a few students seemed to have a better understanding of good and bad behavior and were responding to my questions with the “correct” moral answers. I was ecstatic: I thought for sure that my lectures were making a major difference on my students’ moral growth.

My excitement quickly faded: The next day my principal notified me that he’d caught my two best “moral talkers” throwing rocks at a neighbor’s house during recess and broke a window. He was especially upset that the boys couldn’t understand why their actions were wrong and showed little remorse for the damage they caused. I was bewildered: these were the same kids who always impressed me in our moral discussions.

They sure had all the right answers and sounded like they knew right from wrong. So how could they be acting immorally if they were talking so morally? My discussion with them taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

“The rocks were just there and we didn’t have anything to do, so we just started throwing them,” explained one boy. “We didn’t think the window would break.”

The second boy admitted: “I guess if it were my house I’d be kind of mad, but walls were really dirty. If the window didn’t break the man would never know that we were throwing rocks at his house.”

These two kids sure had me fooled! I quickly realized my mistake: I assumed because these kids talked morally, they would also act morally. Was I ever wrong! They also taught me that sounding as though you have a strong conscience is no guarantee for good behavior. After all, how we choose to behave really does speak louder than what we say with our words. Just make sure you don’t make the same mistake with your kids.

Knowing the right and decent way to act and acting that way should be the only test to determine whether your child has developed a strong moral compass. It’s up to us to make sure our kids’ moral compasses are solid and in place so they really will talk as well as act right and do so with or without our guidance.

Just remember: Using simple parenting solutions can make real differences on your children’s lives—especially when you choose ones that matter most in raising good kids. Then commit to making those strategies become a habit in your own daily parenting so your child internalizes them.

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