Morality – How do we learn it?


This week I asked some of the students at the orphanage I work at in Cambodia to write something about why they enjoy living there. One of them, a thirteen-year-old boy noted that Sovann Komar was great because of its ‘morality’. Firstly, I was impressed with his English and secondly it made me smile. Part of what we try to do at Sovann Komar is raise children who are morally good, and can help to combat the severe corruption Cambodia is currently battling against. It’s a tough job for parents to teach their children not just their ABCs but those virtues and life skills us humans must learn as we grow. I thought I’d put together a little guide which gives some advice to parents with young children about how we learn what morality is and how to impart moral lessons in the lives of our youngest members of society. Disclaimer, I don’t have children of my own!

Be a good role model

All parents know children mimic what they see. That goes beyond the child in playgroup who encouraged your kid to eat gravel and includes you too. Whether they are learning from how you treat and interact with them personally to how you talk to other people, your child is always watching and learning, both consciously and subconsciously. If you are honest, compassionate and respectful, chances are your child will learn these qualities too. It is also a good idea to minimise their exposure to people or forms of media (computer games, television shows, movies) you think may negatively influence your child, especially young ones who are particularly susceptible to what they see and hear.

Point out everyday situations where morality is important

From learning to patiently stand in line at a store to paying someone a compliment when they’ve had a haircut to showing a child an inspirational newspaper story, there are countless ways in which we as people are exposed to kind, morally good deeds every day. Point them out to your child, talk about them and discuss the way in which the event was an example of morality. Encourage them to consider the act thoughtfully and understand further why it was good and who benefitted from it.

You can also begin discussions about acts which are immoral when your child is old enough to understand right and wrong. Whether this is something your child has done such as lying or stealing something from a sibling or an act witnessed or heard about on the news. Talk to your child about why it was wrong and what could be done in the future to prevent from happening again.

Admit your mistakes

You’re human, and your child knows that. If you make a mistake, apologise to your child and explain what you did was wrong rather than trying to cover it up or justify the act. Much in the way that they look to you as a role model, your child will learn to apologise themselves when they do something wrong. Honesty is an important quality of a morally good person.

Hold your child accountable

If your child is old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong, hold them accountable when they do something which could be considered immoral. The ‘punishment’ should be reasonable, of course, but children should learn that doing something bad has consequences. It is one of the ways they will remember the life lesson and will be reminded not to repeat the act in the future. They must learn that the world is a just place where good is rewarded and bad is disciplined. As they learn these rules, they will become more thoughtful and caring in the way they interact with the world and those in it.

Praise them when they’re good

Children love to hear the words ‘well done’. Reinforce all moral acts with praise and they are more likely to repeat them. This could be just a simple thank you for loading the dishwasher or congratulations when they’ve completed a particularly difficult piece of homework. If you observe your child being nice to their friend on a playdate, praise them for it afterwards and remind them of how much fun they had with their friend when they were playing nicely together. Studies have shown that children who are not only praised but shown love and affection are also more likely to be kind and loving people to others in their lives.

Involve your child in acts of kindness

Children are never too young to begin learning how to help others and be kind to their fellow humans. Whether this is simply practicing good manners in practice (holding doors open, giving up seats on public transport etc.), making friends with the new child at school, designing a get well card for a sick relative or actively joining a community group which organises kindness activities in the local area, the sooner your child begins to regularly conduct these acts, the sooner it will become second nature to them.

Finally, while researching this article I came across some research by a psychology lecturer at Harvard University, Richard Weissbourd, which suggested two thirds of children consider their own happiness more important than being a good person and a significant number of parents also believed it was more important for their children to be happy than for them to be good. Firstly, this research is sad. And secondly, if you read some of my earlier articles, you will discover there is a huge amount of evidence to suggest one of the few ways to achieve true happiness is through acts of kindness which help others. So the idea that there are children and their parents in the world who are focusing on trying to obtain happiness by not helping others is just counterproductive. Some parents believed once their children had achieved happiness they would then turn to helping others. Teach your children to find happiness by helping others, not by focusing only on themselves first and foremost. Morality, it seems, leads to happiness, not the other way around. And when you or your child do a ‘moral’ deed, don’t forget to post about it in our app to inspire others.

Go, do, experience. More Good Deeds.