During the twentieth century, multiple research studies were performed evaluating child rearing. Many theories were proposed that did not include the elements of educating children with the end result of sound moral and ethical character development. However, moral education is the primary focus of educations in this era. Producing moral and ethical character in children requires foundational training during childhood which demands authoritative parenting incorporating appropriate boundaries, parental presence, coaching, modeling, constant nurturing, and accountability with understanding. More importantly, the primary concern is parental (primary caretaker) involvement. This is mandatory for moral and ethical character development because research proves that children learn what they see modeled. Evaluated literature reflects societal trend for embracing moral leadership including other-focused ideals to serve humanity that some consider “old-fashioned”. Furthermore, research demonstrates that the direction of society’s future is contingent upon the character of its maturing generation.
Ingredients for Developing Moral and Ethical Character in Children
Baking a cake requires one to have all the right ingredients for the cake to become the tasty creation one intends. Each ingredient performs a significant task in the development of the cake, yet many of the ingredients are not very tasty individually. For example, the flour gives it substance, and the gluten within the flour gives the cake volume, structure, and stability, but flour by itself is pasty and tasteless. Eggs in cake batter are necessary to hold the ingredients together and assist the cake in maintaining its shape. Giving the cake that sweetness, is the sugar. In addition, sugar causes the confection to brown nicely during baking to produce that golden color. Vanilla extract gives the pastry just the right hint of flavor. Certainly liquids are also necessary. Liquids provide consistency, balance, flavor, moisture, and assist with leavening. In addition, baking soda and baking powder are leavening agents. Leavening elements help the cake rise by releasing carbon dioxide into the batter, thereby creating bubbles and making the sweet have its fluffy texture. Butter is another ingredient that provides the mixture with depth and flavor. Hence, each ingredient has a particular purpose and every one of the requested ingredients in a recipe is necessary to manufacture the desired result.
A human child requires ever so much more time and attention than a cake, but it is still necessary to incorporate all of the pertinent ingredients in order to build a child’s moral character according to the values and ethics desired. Producing moral and ethical character in children requires foundational training during childhood which demands authoritative parenting as well as incorporating appropriate boundaries, parental presence, coaching, modeling, constant nurturing, and accountability with understanding. All the right ingredients in the right combinations are required to mold a young person into a valuable member of society.
Theories for child rearing in the 1920s thru 1970s swayed from authoritarian to permissive. Self-esteem was a primary focus. This theory was so invasive that educators and parents were encouraged not to correct or discipline children for mistakes for fear it would damage their precious self-esteem. The result was a generation of young people that were self-focused and materialistic. Moral education is now the forerunner of parenting theories. Moreover, schools across the nation teach a curriculum that promotes character education in the way of virtues and ethics, providing school children with many opportunities to learn through various methods. Parental involvement is the mandatory factor for character education to produce the desired results in children.
Definition of Character
At Merriam-Webster.com, character is defined as “one of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish an individual. In addition, character is defined as the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation; moral excellence”. Socially and morally responsible persons with sound ethical character are required to care for and advance society. Character encompasses many virtues that are indispensable in developing persons that make right choices and are other-focused.
Marian Wright Edelman (1992) gives twenty-five lessons for life in her book The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours. The lessons are succinct and applicable to all humankind, but especially provide sound wisdom for raising a young person with moral and ethical character. Some of these instructions follow:
“Don’t feel entitled to anything you don’t sweat and struggle for. Set goals and work quietly and systematically toward them. Assign yourself (take initiative). Never work just for money or for power. Never give up. You are in charge of your own attitude. Be reliable and faithful” (p. 37 – 74).
So these are some character guidelines, ideals to strive for when dealing with people. Furthermore, positive character traits are virtues like responsibility, perseverance, empathy, self discipline, citizenship, honesty, courage, fairness, respect, integrity, patriotism, excellence. Basically, good character is knowing the right thing to do and having strength and integrity to act upon those personal convictions (Swift, 2005).
Lickona and Davidson (2005) define character as the deliberate effort to develop virtues that are
“good for the individual and good for society. The objective goodness of virtues is based on the fact that they:
1. Affirm our human dignity,
2. Promote the well-being and happiness of the individual,
3. Serve the common good,
4. Define our rights and obligations
5. Meet the classical ethical tests of reversibility (Would you want to be treated this way?) and universalizability (Would you want all persons to act this way in a similar situation?)” (p. 2).
Parents are essential to providing the boundaries that children need in order to develop into loving, responsible, and respectful adults. Boundaries are basically the ability to hear and say no appropriately (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). Cloud and Townsend define ten boundary principles in their book, Boundaries with Kids: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, to Help Children Gain Control of Their Lives. These laws include: Sowing and Reaping, Responsibility, Power, Respect, Motivation, Evaluation, Proactivity, Envy, Activity, and Exposure (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). Boundaries are not something learned overnight. Actually, boundaries are taught in the day to day moments of life as the parent interacts with the child (Damon, 1988).
Unfortunately, children will naturally resist the process of learning how to take responsibility for their own lives (Cloud & Townsend, 2003). However, a slow transition occurs where the child is molded by the parent so that over time there is a transfer of desired qualities from the outside to the inside of the child (Cloud & Townsend, 2003). Initially, the boundaries are enforced upon the child by the parent. Eventually, the boundaries become a part of who the person becomes. When a family is dysfunctional, boundaries are not appropriately taught (Hemfelt & Warren 1990). Furthermore, when children experience dysfunctional family boundaries, they are in imminent danger of developing severe emotional problems, compulsions, and addictions as they grow to maturity (Hemfelt & Warren, 1990).
It is natural for parents to love their children and want the best for them. Sometimes, children desire things that are not good for them. It is possible to think that it is loving to give them the item of their desire, but this is not love (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006). Love will do the best for the child regardless of the pain endured for the moment. Consequently, the child eventually learns that the world is a large place that does not revolve around him (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). In fact, an important goal is to help the child learn to consider the ramifications of their actions before they act (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006). Moreover, a person that takes ownership for their life is a person in control of their own life (Cloud & Townsend, 1988).
According to Cloud and Townsend, to become a truly responsible person, an individual must take ownership for their “feelings, attitudes, behaviors, choices, limits, talents, thoughts, desires, values, and loves” (p. 26). This responsibility brings freedom. A person is free to live their lives as they choose as long as they take responsibility for their choices (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). The reality is that there are negative and positive consequences for behavior (Berkowitz & Bier, 2005). Every choice a person makes has consequences that brings life or death according to Deuteronomy 30:19 (Today’s New International Version), “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live”. If a child learns this principle, he will work toward the reward; work to avoid painful realities that arise from poor choices (Damon, 1988).
If parents guide their children with the end result in mind, it will put teaching in the proper perspective because the course and quality of a child’s life is determined by his character (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). Many qualities develop when clear boundaries are evident. The child will have a clear sense of who he is and what are his responsibilities (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). Moreover, the child will understand he has the ability to make choices…life just does not happen to him (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). Similarly, he will grasp that making good choices produces good results and poor choices reaps poor results (Cloud & Townsend, 1998). Finally, the child will have the possibility for true love based in freedom (Cloud & Townsend, 1998).
Coaching and Modeling
All character building training comes through coaching and modeling desired behavior. A coach is an individual that draws a skill out of a person whereas modeling involves displaying the behavior children should imitate. Modeling is the most powerful teaching tool parents have at their disposal (Swift, 2005). Although adolescents are often critical of their parents, kids at this stage are discreetly yet carefully watching their parents for clues on how to function in society (Kantrowitz, Springen, & Scelfo, 2005). Modeling is a continuous process. Although an adult may not be wearing their parent hat at a particular moment in time, the child is still scrutinizing every word, every action, at every moment (Kantrowitz, Springen, & Scelfo, 2005). In the end, parents will set the character tone of the entire family (Berkowitz & Bier, 2005). Therefore, it is imperative that parents determine what their core values are and operate within those standards at all times (Berkowitz & Bier, 2005). This is the predominant way to influence good values and character in children. Although character education is taught in schools, much depends on the support children receive from the adults around them; therefore, parents are essential for character education (Kantrowitz, Springen, & Scelfo, 2005).
All relationships require commitment. Intimate relationships take work and time. According to Clinton and Sibcy (2006), “Your relationship with your kids is at the heart of parenting” (p. 80). Keeping a solid close relationship between parent and child allows the parent to have influence in the life of that child (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006). Cloud and Townsend believe the two most important character traits a child requires to mature are attachment and honesty. If the child can connect emotionally and believes he is cared for by his parents and does the child tell the truth.
When children hit the adolescent years, this influence is particularly valuable (Kantrowitz, Springen, & Scelfo, 2005). Research proves that peers and culture influence teens for music, clothes, and fun, but parents have a stronger influence on the life altering issues such as sex, drugs, faith (Clinton & Sibcy, 2006). Additionally, relationships with parents, teachers, and other adults introduce the child to important social norms (Damon, 1988). Out of these relationships, the child learns respect for the social order, its organizational principles, and authority in general (Damon, 1988).
Although classified under different names depending on the professional and the era, many child psychologists advocate for “floor time” to achieve this level of intimacy in the relationship between parent and child (Hulbert, 2003). In the 1980s, Brazelton and Greenspan, child rearing authorities of their time, initiated “floor time”, a daily thirty minute period of one-on-one play time between parent and child (Hulbert, 2003). This time was considered crucial to promoting healthy emotional and cognitive development (Hulbert, 2003). Moreover, it was touted as foundational for any lasting sense of discipline and morality (Hulbert, 2003). Furthermore, this time was intended to regulate childhood impulses, stabilize mood, integrate feelings and actions, focus concentration, set goals, and plan (Hulbert, 2005). Not only is this daily dedicated time critical, continuous parental involvement is crucial. What’s more, Greenspan emphasized the parental role in the family team and stressed that it was the parent’s responsibility to rally the family team to its highest performance at each stage of the developmental process (Hulbert, 2005).
Dr. John B. Watson, a popular child rearing authority of the 1920s, professed a “talk it out club” was necessary (Hubert, 2003). This was a precursor to “floor time” where parents were to set aside several times a week to openly converse with their children age two and up (Hulbert, 2003). During this time, children can learn strategies for adjusting reactionary responses. This learning must begin at an early age. In fact, this learning is best done early because it can help the child avoid poor behavior patterns in the future (Damon, 1988).
The primary goal of this parent child interaction is for the parent to show interest in the child and get the child to talk about the events of the day. In this way, parents take small teachable moments to discuss character issues referencing how they as parents would manage a similar crisis or situation brought up in discussion with the child (Damon, 1988). Besides taking time to communicate, affection is also paramount. The more affectionate and intimate the family relationship, typically the greater the cooperation by the child with parental authority (Damon, 1988).
Studies by Mary Ainsworth and colleagues showed that when children enjoy secure attachments with their caregivers, they are more likely to abide by the family rules (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1979). What’s more, these children actively seek and accept guidance from their adult mentors (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, ; Wall, 1979). “In this sense, secure children obey voluntarily from within the relationship rather than out of coercion or fear” (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, ; Wall, 1979, p. 51). Parents must create a strong relational foundation so that they develop strong character attributes within their children thereby equipping them to effectively operate within society (Kantrowitz, Springen, ; Scelfo, 2005).
Continuous nurturing is another necessary element for molding young people with a sense of conviction and moral ideals. Authoritative parenting is a combination of control with clear communication that favors warmth and nurturance with clearly defined expectations for mature behavior (Damon, 1988). This type of parenting presents firm yet fair expectations that draw the child away from internal emotional reactions toward a “moral center that is more other-oriented” (Damon, 1988). This style of parenting is respectful, responding to the child’s experiences without interruption yet still presenting the child with consistent expectations and guidelines (Damon, 1988). In this manner, the child will receive clearly explained experiential insights. Moreover, bad behavior is confronted and consequences for bad behavior is clearly delineated (Damon, 1988). This involves the parents openly expressing their feelings and clearly explaining the reasons thereof (Damon, 1988). This parenting method consistently nurtures and models a sense of social conscientiousness for children making that transition from self to others complete.
Another parental must when training children is the concept of accountability. It is normal for children to avoid the consequences of bad behavior. However, it is the responsibility of the parent to guide the child. When a child is young, the stakes are low (Swift, 2005). If parents form a solid moral and ethical foundation early in the life of the children, they will stay committed to this moral establishment when the stakes are high later in their lives (Swift, 2005). The Bible states this as a training principle for children in Proverbs 22:6, ”Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it”. For when a child becomes an adult, his character will influence and determine the choices he makes (Swift, 2005).
It is necessary for children to own all of their behavior, the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is essential in developing a conscious. Children must be taught that when they act inappropriately and make bad choices, they will feel wrong inside and when they act in positive moral and ethical ways they will feel right (Berkowitz & Bier, 2005). Rewarding right behavior is critical to fostering good choices (Berkowitz & Bier, 2005).
Some children fear punishment and may initially desire to employ deception. Therefore, when children admit to wrong doing, it is imperative to reward this behavior (Berkowitz & Bier, 2005). It is important to explain to the child that although it is tough to do the right thing, the long term benefits bring peace. Focusing on the long-range outcomes will develop a child of character that makes the right choices regardless that those choices get more difficult as the child ages (Berkowitz & Bier, 2005). Finally, it is crucial to enforce expectations and restrictions on behavior when children are young. “There are several good empirically confirmed reasons to believe that not enforcing expectations and restrictions for mature behavior places children in severe characterological risk” (Damon, 1988, p. 128).
Moral awareness develops through the natural reactions to events that occur within children’s lives (Damon, 1988). Children react to emotional and physiological situations as early as infancy and these continue throughout the life of a person. Although these reactions can be quite intense, it is up to the parent to train the child how to respond to the situation appropriately, not respond out of their reactions (Damon, 1988). Moral education is primarily adapting basic values to the circumstances that occur in everyday life. By this, Children learn to adapt various values to a variety of similar ethical contexts (Damon, 1988). According to Damon, children should be encouraged to recognize and understand their feelings and urged to talk about them with their primary caregivers (Damon, 1988). This communication supports and nurtures the child by helping them identify their emotions, encouraging their response, and helping them gain control of their emotions while teaching them to respond in a mature manner (Damon, 1988).
Whether or not a child is socially well-adapted is directly linked to the manner in which the child is raised (Damon, 1988). Benjamin Spock plead with parents to exert moral leadership calling it the next best guide “in a disenchanted, disillusioned age” (Hulbert, 2003). Spock further proposed that parents embrace a conviction that the most important and fulfilling thing that people can do is serve humanity (Spock, 1968). Moreover, Spock counted parents with a strong religious faith as fortunate because they were supported by their convictions (Spock, 1968). He further implores parents to reestablish “old-fashioned” moral and ethical convictions regarding character parents want for their children (Spock, 1968, p. 10).
The Bible is full of parenting advice and instruction. Moreover, many verses throughout this book speak specifically to the character qualities desirable in a human heart. Being a good parent involves portraying a Christ like example. In Luke 10:27 the Lord sums up all the commandments and guidance in the Bible, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself”. Therefore, if parents love their children as they love themselves, then they are fulfilling the biblical guidance for parenting. It is wise to understand that love disciplines when necessary. Christ’s love demands that violations of clearly established rules and regulations are chastened, “because the Lord disciplines those He loves, and He chastens everyone He accepts as His child” Hebrews 12:6. In addition, the Bible gives us parental examples to follow and examples of parents that missed the mark.
As kids transition from childhood to adulthood there are several principles the parents should encourage the young person to remember. In fact, these principles should guide them throughout life. An individual should celebrate their gifts as well as accept their weaknesses (Hemfelt & Warren, 1990). Next, people require personal accountability achieved by understanding themselves coupled with weighing and balancing duties against privileges (Hemfelt & Warren, 1990). Third, it is vitally important for an individual to consider the motivations for their actions with brutal honesty (Hemfelt & Warren, 1990). By examining and evaluating the reasons for doing what he does, a person learns a great deal about personal character and realizes areas that may need improvement. Fourth, it is valuable to recognize the power of peer relationships (Hemfelt & Warren, 1990). Peers can influence positively or negatively and it is necessary that the convictions of young people be resolute in their hearts and minds to avoid being swayed by their peers. Finally, it is critical that young people remember that they are in control of their own destiny (Hemfelt & Warren, 1990).
Hemfelt and Warren (p. 255) further go on to describe six personal attitudes that parents can maintain to help their child grow up successfully.
1. “I’ll do whatever I perceive is in your best interest, both now and in the future, to help you walk out the front door successfully.”
2. “I will commit to setting clear boundaries and expectations.”
3. “I will make every effort to understand your situation and your feelings as you leave this house.”
4. “I will allow you to fail while it is still safe (while you still have your home to come home to). I renew the spoken pledge: ‘I will walk through this with you.'”
5. “I’m going to encourage you to have relationships outside the family, both with other adults and with peers.”
6. “I will be committed to helping you understand that the secret of life is coping, not mastering.”
Raising children is a rewarding yet arduous task. Raising children with sound moral and ethical character is even more challenging. However, the reward is a well-adjusted other-focused young person who cares about his community and society as a whole. Although there have been a number of transitions in parenting over the years, raising a child of good character with sound moral and ethical virtues is again en vogue. In a special 2000 issue of Newsweek a poll was cited that showed raising a moral person had edged out rearing a happy child or a smart child and was now at the top of the list of parenting goals (Hulbert, 2003). With all of the necessary elements, it is possible to raise children with good character that will be of service to society. Success as individuals and as a society shall be determined upon the backs of its citizens’ character.
Ainsworth, M. D., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1979). Patterns of attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.
Berkowitz, M. W., & Bier, M. C. (2005). Character education parents as partners. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 64-69.
Clinton, T. & Sibcy, G. (2006). Loving your child too much: Staying close to your kids without overprotecting, overindulging, or overcontrolling. Franklin TN: Integrity Publishers.
Cloud, H. & Townsend, J. (1998). Boundaries with kids: When to say yes, when to say no, to help children gain control of their lives. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Damon, W. (1988). The moral child: Nurturing children’s natural moral growth. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Hemfelt, R. & Warren, P. (1990). Kids who carry our pain. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Hulbert, A. (2003). Raising America: Experts, parents, and a century of advice about children. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House.
Kantrowitz, B., Springen, K., & Scelfo, J. (2005). A peaceful adolescence. (Cover story). Newsweek, 145(17), 58-61.
Lickona, T. & Davidson, M. (2005). Smart and good high schools: Integrating excellence and ethics for success in school, work, and beyond. Washington, DC: Character Education Partnership.
Swift, M. (2005). Learning Right from Wrong. Scholastic Parent & Child, 13(3), 52-55.
Spock, B. (1968). Baby and child care. New York, NY: Pocket Books.