Current moral psychology research indicates that as parents we are our child’s first and most important teacher of the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. The good news is that from birth, humans (and other primates for that matter) are hard-wired to care. According to psychologist and primatologist Franz De Waal (2010), empathy, or being able to feel/care/think on another’s behalf, is an instinctual, adaptive capacity that helps us all survive.
Empathy is at the root of being a good person, or ape, whatever the case may be. Infants as young as six months old can differentiate kindness from meanness. By 12 months, infants begin to express care for others in distress. And by 14-18 months, these children show signs of altruistic (unrewarded) helping behaviors towards others (Decety, Michalska, and Kinzler, 2011). Moral reasoning develops as children learn to integrate their inborn empathy with more complex social-reasoning abilities. As parents, we have the responsibility to help our children learn how to connect and activate, through practice, that wiring through our care for them.
Developing a moral conscience is no longer understood to be a logical or even stage-by-stage process as proposed by the grandfather of moral development theory, Lawrence Kohlberg (1984). Social Intuitionist theorists like Jonathan Haidt (2001) conclude that human beings are much less logical and much more intuitive, emotional, and automatic in their moral decision-making and responsiveness. Moral psychologists like Darcia Narvaez, have developed several integrative theories, weaving together current neurobiology with more traditional cognitive and developmental psychology theories concerning the nature of moral development. Her research explores questions of moral cognition, moral development and moral character education. She is, in essence, trying to show that moral behavior in humans is driven by both bottom-up (reptilian brain instincts and limbic system responses) and top-down processes (higher brain metacognition and executive function linked with the development of our prefrontal cortex).
What does all this have to do with parenting and moral courage?
It is the heart with which you bring to parenting that will help define your child’s orientation towards prosocial behavior (which is loosely defined as: empathic caring about the welfare and rights of others and acting in ways that benefit humanity).
However, Narvaez and Vaydich (2008) caution that modern parenting practices, particularly in America, either do not afford or underestimate the importance of spending the kind of time ensuring secure parent-child attachment. They and others, like De Waal, voice concerns that we must not drop the ball on being the kind of attentive mentors our kids need to develop a healthy moral conscience. It can be hard these days with so many different technologies, extracurricular activities, and financial realities competing for our attention. Especially as our children enter adolescence, when their moral compass increasingly shifts towards the magnetic appeal of peer and mainstream media influence. It takes moral courage to be the parent who shuts down the party where alcohol is served to minors. To demand better workplace hours, benefits, or childcare policies so your children are made a priority. Or to advocate for your child in a school where bullying may be the elephant in the lunchroom cafeteria.
When we are engaged in consistent, loving parenting—which is at the basis of secure parent-child bonds—everyday teachable moments with our children abound. Teachable moments that can facilitate the transmission of moral values through moral instruction, modeling, supervision, and even the kind of story-telling associated with helping children to become good people.
Narvaez and Vaydich (2008) urge educators, too, to become the kind of safe, caring mentors children need. They believe school teachers are placed with an increasingly heavy burden of responsibility in helping to shape the future leaders of our world, in lieu of parental involvement and supervision. In fact, these researchers encourage teachers to establish the same kind of secure attachments with their students, through attention and emotional awareness, in order to help ensure children will learn and follow the moral guidelines with which classrooms best function. Moral guidelines like: be kind, wait your turn, share, pick up your garbage, tell the truth, and don’t poke your classmate!
For a list of ways to help support your child’s moral development, be sure to read my post next Sunday!