Or how do you help them to develop their own sense of morality?
When I was adding tags to this post (because, even if I haven’t blogged properly for yonks, I still know the drill) the autocomplete already had ‘morality’ in there – and this is the post tagged with ‘morality’. So, as usual I find that I already worried about this issue, thought about it, discussed in a blog post (and probably on Facebook and Twitter back then) and maybe even talked it over with Chris in real life. And then forgot about it. Oh bugger. That was stupid.
In the whole protecting the innocent (or guilty, in this case) thing and not telling tales about my children without their permission (you know it’s really hard to keep up any kind of parent blogging kudos without being to tell tales about your kids – funny ones, sad ones, cool ones… that’s what it’s all about, dammit), I can’t actually give you any real background here, but tonight we hit the lying problem (lying about doing something known to be unacceptable behaviour in this family) head on. The unacceptable behaviour was a problem (and it sometimes feels like there’s more and more of that at the moment), but the persistent (and really bad) lying about it was a bigger one. In my eyes at least. And it scared me. It scared the crap out of me that we had somehow failed to impart some important moral principles.
So, I went off and googled ‘How do you teach children morality?’ and now I feel even worse. The first article I read was a primer for attachment parenting and basically told me that we have completely failed (though we may have some time left with one of them) by letting other people look after our children and not providing them with a constant loving and connected life before sending them off to school. Crap. I have been sat in front of this computer for far too many hours when I should have been playing with, baking with, gardening with… Whatever. I wasn’t doing it. But then there was a paragraph where the reasoning went from a child watching someone hurt someone on TV to shooting their girlfriend when he grew up. Um. OK. (And, you know, I love loads about attachment parenting and took to lots of it myself. This is not me dissing attachment parenting – if I had the patience, time and money I would totally be an attachment parent.)
So I went off and read a few more. Some stuff about discipline and consequences. Some stuff about making rules and sticking to them. Lots of stuff about children not developing empathy until they’re around 7 or 8 and up until then, it can only be about rules and the Golden Rule (saw this in multiple articles) ‘Do to others what you have them do to you’ (pretty sure there’s a version of that in the bible (though I know there’s also the contradictory ‘Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’, which is one of the many reasons I didn’t go looking for any answers in religion).
But the other thing that threaded through most of them is the being a role model (especially in the pre-school years – crap, again!). I kind of always assume that we’re good role models for morality, but actually are we? I’m not so sure now. For a start our morality diverges in at least one point and quite possibly more (at least we have similar political leanings, but I know we’ve had heated debates about moral issues in the past – many years ago, now; we’re more likely to talk about how to get the homework done or whether InDesign can output epub files). We do talk about me being vegetarian a fair bit, but I have never really explained why. Except that I was born that way and don’t know any different – but I do actually have strong beliefs about the right and wrong of it and frankly I should be telling my children this, not to indoctrinate them or whatever, but to give them an insight into my moral compass.
On top of that, though, we frequently expect our children to behave differently to how we behave. We expect them to listen to us, but don’t always give them the courtesy of listening to them (usually for ‘good reasons’, such as needing to run out the door and not be late). We expect them to tidy up after themselves, when we leave things piling up because work is so busy we just don’t have time. We expect them to share with each other, when we have a large number of things in the house which are ‘for grown-ups only’. We expect them to calm themselves when sad or angry and not scream and shout and stomp, when both of us spend much of the day swearing at our computers and certainly have been known to shout. At least a couple of times a day, probably. And we can both stomp and sulk for England (or Scotland, or occasionally Wales).
Oh yeah. And we don’t always tell the truth. There are times when we suggest not mentioning something to someone because it might upset them. Times when we have told what we would consider white lies but in a child’s eyes they would just be lies. There are also many times when we make claims that our children believe not to be true (because they’ve read something different, heard it from a teacher, seen it on TV – or think they have, at least) and then they feel we are lying (there’s another distinction that needs to be made).
So it seems (duh! as my children would say) that we need to look inwardly a lot more before looking outward. We need to understand and talk about our own moral compasses. Maybe come up with some family morals that can integrate these. We need to make sure we understand what we expect from a moral child, before expecting our children to have any kind of innate moral ability. And then we need to make sure we are modelling moral behaviour. Consistently. Sounds hard. But I do hope I don’t go away and forget about this post and these thoughts again for another couple of years because, then it really might have been too late.
What about you? How do you teach your children morality? Have you managed to model moral behaviour right from the start? Does it just come naturally, or is it a very conscious effort? Do you have any other tips? (And if you want to tell me that it’s OK, that we haven’t completely screwed our children up already, that would be nice, too. Though obviously you shouldn’t lie about it.)