Passing on Morality

An old friend on Facebook shared this interesting article today on effective ways to instill moral values and identity in children.  

The article dutifully presents a variety of research surrounding how to elicit moral behavior in children by associating it as part of their identity.  In other words, conveying to children that they are kind is more effective at prompting further kindness than praising a particular act as kind.  At key ages (such as age 8) children in the process of assimilating their identity respond powerfully to the suggestion that they are a certain type of person (kind, generous, caring, etc.) and therefore they engage in certain types of behaviors (kindness, generosity, care, etc.).
All of which makes good sense, and will likely continue to make good sense until the next batch of research shows up next week or in 20 years from now with a new idea.
What I found interesting was the amount of space dedicated to the research at hand compared to what apparently is just as powerful an issue if not more so – witnessing the desired characteristic displayed by significant people in the child’s life (teachers, parents, etc.).  This was the concluding few paragraphs of the essay, as well as the overall conclusion, even though far more ink was spent on techniques of verbally conveying praise or criticism to children in order to elicit particular traits.
Before we were all so enlightened and deft enough to seek to elicit particular traits in our children based on what would make them most successful, before we had scads of psychological reports and millions of dollars of research, people raised children as well.  They were likely raised more by proximity than agenda.  They learned from us whatever they saw in us, which might indicate why there was such an emphasis on being decent people.  Attempting to cultivate in someone else something lacking in yourself is tricky business at best, and research tends to support the idea that it isn’t very successful.
But something else this report didn’t touch on is the importance of not merely conveying a particular behavior, whether verbally or by example, but in conveying the reason for the behavior as well.  Why is selflessness better than selfishness?  Why is kindness better than always focusing on yourself?  Why share when you can have more for yourself?  Why be honest both about your successes and your shortcomings instead of crafting a picture-perfect image of yourself that is a lie?  
There is great value in moral behavior, both to the individual as well as to the society in which that individual finds themselves.  Some of the greatest villains in history though have realized that it can be an even greater asset to be ruthless rather than  kind, that if everyone seeks to be kind, an individual can capitalize on this to their own advantage.  So the question becomes why be moral, if it’s possible to achieve even greater power or glory or riches by exploiting the kindness of others?
We leave the realms of what psychology can tell us pretty quickly in this line of thinking, but it’s critical.  There must be a why associated with the what.  And if the why simply has to do with personal success, the child will eventually see it for the sham that it is.  It must be grounded in something larger and deeper and more permanent than cultural norms or personal agendas.  It must be grounded in our deeper identity not as citizens of a particular country or culture, but as creatures part of a larger creation, who and what we were originally intended to be and what we are being restored to.  
By the same token it needs to go beyond a what would Jesus do mentality.  What Jesus did was a reflection of the timeless truths woven into creation.  His identity as the Son of God informed his behavior as the son of Mary.  Likewise, though you and I and our offspring are by no means divine (and certainly sometimes far less divine than others!), we ground ourselves not just in imagining what Jesus might have done in a similar situation, but turning to the Word of God that reveals how God has designed creation and ourselves to best function, allowing this to inform our decisions and choices, not our imagination.  
I want my children to be kind and good children – not simply for their sake or the people who their lives will touch, but because that is who God has created them to be.  I need to convey that both in my praise and criticism of their thinking and acting, as well as in how I live my life, which I know they watch closely.  More deeply than even this, I need to connect my behavior – both good and bad – as well as theirs, to the Word of God.  All of which hopefully infuses them with the desire to be good, knowing how good God has already been to them, while providing them with a way of dealing with the fact that they aren’t always good, and allowing the reality of forgiveness to help prevent the trauma that can come from the inevitable paradox of being both good people and bad people at the same time.
Hopefully these are things that you’re considering with your own kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews – any of the young people in your life.  And frankly, it goes the same for anyone of any age in your life.   We never stop watching other people and comparing and evaluating.  

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