Our children are born with their own moral compass, beautifully untouched and set to true north.
Their developmental progression, us parents – their immediate family, our extended family, social groups, schooling, peer groups, societal expectations – all add complex layers to our child’s self-identity and their moral being over the many years into adulthood.
Today’s child and moral development
While the nature vs nurture debate rages – we, as parents, know that our little person is born with their own moral code that’s influenced, weakened and strengthened by their experiences and influencers over their lifetime.
Some children are social warriors. Playground injustice? They’re in, batting for the underdog, waving the flag of justice on high. Others are easily influenced and their moral code is very much written by the most powerful person in their social group – those can be very tricky children to help into healthy patterns of moral courage.
Enter the digital age where the influence on our children is ENORMOUS. Do we have to do things differently now to stretch our children’s moral courage?
Moral courage – what is it?
Taking action despite the possible social fallout, risks or inconveniences. Moral courage is what we want all of our children to have in the playground and online. To be champions for justice – for themselves and others. To be advocates for those who may be unable or
unwilling to advocate for themselves. To stand fast in their beliefs about right or wrong despite peer pressure or influence and to hold that ground courageously.
In today’s age of low empathy politics, hurrying and scurrying for the next achievement, the next endorsement – sometimes at the cost of others, stepping on the heads and shoulders of others to get higher and higher – stretching moral courage explicitly, openly and nobly with our children is a must.
4 ways to help young ones to stretch their moral courage
Moral courage is abundantly present where there is empathy, compassion and gratitude. Being able to see the path of another and to hold them up, help them along or applaud their efforts. To be true to self despite influencers and influences. These simple daily practices at home lay a firm foundation for moral courage:
1. Gratitude – every day, have everyone in the family acknowledge out loud something or someone they’re grateful for. You can do this at the dinner table each night, in the car after school – any time is a good time to be mindfully grateful – but do build that time into your routine so it doesn’t get forgotten. Do it for a week – notice the difference. Do it for a month – change your view of the world. You don’t have to look far to find someone doing it tougher than yourself. When we encourage active gratitude, we help our children’s brains to actively seek out the good – even when times are tough. That brain – the one that’s grateful, is the one primed for stretching of moral courage.
2. Family acts of service – let’s face it, it’s not always convenient to respond to the request of another. If a child is playing a game or not in the mood, then emptying the dishwasher, making a cuppa for a parent, helping a sibling to finish building their block tower is not a high priority. So, brainstorm family acts of service. Make vouchers that can get cashed in or decide on what would be a real lift for someone in the family and then make sure it happens at least once a week. Doing something for someone else, despite a bit of inconvenience is really good for stretching a child morally because it lays the foundation of empathy and compassion.
3. Social acts of service – what’s one thing your child can do each week that helps another? New child at school? Same child always left out of games? Some child going through a tough time? Someone getting a poor result in a test? When we encourage our children to see the world through the eyes of another – to walk a miles in their shoes – then their moral development is being stretched. It takes courage to project being compassionate and empathetic once a week. There is the risk of having a friend tell you that you don’t need to do that – or that you shouldn’t include that child. There’s a risk that you might miss out on something as a result of helping another. And that’s where the stretching of the moral courage lies. And as a parent – how are you going to model this and report on it to your child? It’s good to stretch your moral compass too.
4. Acknowledging another – tall poppy syndrome. Have you heard of it? Someone is doing well at something and it might ignite a little flame of envy or the desire to attribute that person’s actions and achievements to something other than their hard work and effort. It’s common in schools – and in workplaces and it’s easy to sort out by stretching your own moral courage. So, start with yourself – what can you notice out loud – to someone who is doing well, doing more, achieving well – that might even reflect badly on your own efforts? That’s uncomfortable huh? But that’s how we stretch moral courage. And your child – it’s a simple as intentionally giving a high five, a ‘Well done mate’ or a ‘You did that really well’ . Acknowledging another is something worthy, noble and courageous that you and your child can practise each week.
How about having a check in about how everyone has gone for 1 month simply doing those 4 things each week? Make a chart, tick off when the each of the 4 moral courage stretchers has been done and encourage everyone to get 4 big ticks on that chart every week for one whole month.
What happens next?
Well, nothing immediate – there’s no magic pill to be swallowed to stretch moral courage. What there is, is intentional, actioned and directioned hard work in families over the childhood years. And this is what primes the teen brain for success, to stay the moral high
road (with slight deviations expected and required). This is how we raise the mums and dads, politicians, teachers, doctors, engineers… of tomorrow who have the moral courage of their convictions.
Claire Orange is the cofounder of BEST Programs 4 Kids. She also appears on Today Extra and Perth’s Nine Live as an Australian Parenting Expert.