Raising Ethical Children


BOB ABERNETHY, host: We have a profile today of a man who is spending his life trying to help bring about a more ethical America. He is Rushworth Kidder, a former Christian Science Monitor correspondent and columnist who founded and runs the Institute for Global Ethics. As he makes clear in his new book Good Kids, Tough Choices, Kidder wants to help parents help their children make ethical decisions and develop the moral courage to carry them out.

A familiar sight in Rockland, Maine is Rushworth Kidder leaving town. From his think tank, the Institute for Global Ethics, Kidder is on the road about half the time helping corporations, schools and other groups think about what’s ethical. This day-long session was at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.

RUSHWORTH KIDDER (speaking to group): So the whole thing is just to think about the characteristics of a morally courageous individual.

post01-ethicalchildrenABERNETHY: Kidder says at sessions like this one over 20 years he has talked ethics with 40,000 people. The first step is easy, he says: telling right from wrong. You ask, is this illegal? Against the rules? If not, another question:

KIDDER: We just call it the stench test. Does the thing just plain stink? At some gut level, instinctive way, is this just wrong? Suppose it passes that one. Go on to what we call the front page test: How are you going to feel if everything you did shows up on the front page of tomorrow morning’s paper, or these days on YouTube, on Facebook? And finally, the one I love to get to is what we call the Mom test. The Mom test is what would my Mom do in this situation?

ABERNETHY: Kidder says the most important thing parents can do for their kids is set a good example. He also says there are helpful ways to think about ethical choices, and he demonstrated some of them with a group of parents he invited, at our request, to talk about issues they face.

KIDDER: What do you do as a parent if it’s clear to you that one of your children has told a lie to you?

MOTHER: The three-year-old still tells the truth. The nine-year-old—lying is pretty prevalent. I’d say daily to weekly. It’s been quite an issue.

post02-ethicalchildrenABERNETHY: Kidder says younger children lie, but don’t cover it up. Older kids do both.

KIDDER (speaking to parents): There’s a piece of research that describes the fact that, if we’re not careful, by the age of eight kids become—and this is the phrase the researchers used—“fully skilled lie-tellers.” That’s a frightening phrase.

ABERNETHY: Kidder says all cultures identify the same five core values.

KIDDER (speaking to parents): Everywhere we go and do this work, and I’m talking about around the world, we’ve worked in about 30 countries on this kind of idea, we keep hearing people talk about the same thing: honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness, and compassion. There’s no difference between the values held by people who say I am deeply religious and those who say I have no religion whatsoever. This really goes deep.

ABERNETHY: The hardest ethical choices, Kidder says, are not between right and wrong but between right and right, when two or more core values conflict. He told the story of a girl whose friend told her she was anorexic, but swore her to secrecy. Then the girl discovered that her friend’s condition was life-threatening.

KIDDER: Wow, you’ve just dumped that teenager or that middle-schooler right in the middle of a right-versus-right dilemma, where everything about truth-telling is hugely important. You don’t tell the truth, somebody may be dead. On the other hand, you don’t break a promise.

ABERNETHY: Kidder urges parents of young children to drill right and wrong into them. With older children he encourages discussion—recognizing potential conflicts before they occur.

KIDDER: Just having the opportunity in some ways to talk about these things ahead of time with kids, just to begin to get at some of the right-versus-right kinds of questions that come up, you’re at least giving a child a way to understand that oh yeah, these things happen.

post03-ethicalchildrenABERNETHY: Of all the ethical issues the group raised, the most troubling was how to handle computers and new social media like Facebook.

FATHER: We’ve had five or six kids sitting in our living room, all on their computers, not interacting with each other.

MOTHER: On weekends in the afternoon we don’t allow any media—and that’s TV, computer, anything—because we need to disconnect.

MOTHER: I am petrified the day that she gets on Facebook. She’s not using email yet, but it’s certainly going to be an issue, and it’s scary.

KIDDER (speaking to parents): This is third grade you’re talking about?

MOTHER: She’s in fourth grade. I have full intention of reading emails before she even has an account. If you’re going to have this account it’s going to be monitored.

FATHER: The power is there to change the world. On the other hand, can it be used for things that are not great? Absolutely, and we’ve seen examples of that: kids, you know, having their sexual preference put up online and committing suicide and things like that.

post04-ethicalchildrenKIDDER: There is now so much power and so much immediacy in the technology that a single unethical decision put into the system can have consequences that it never could have had 30, 40, 50 years ago.

ABERNETHY: Kidder argues that identifying and choosing what’s right always carries the need to act. He calls that “moral courage,” and one of the group gave an example. Her daughter saw some kids picking on another child on the school bus.

MOTHER: So she is a very quiet girl, but she actually kind of stood up and said, “Hey, stop doing that. That’s bullying,” and I said, “What happened?” She goes, “Well, they didn’t hear me so I had to do it again.” It made me very proud of her. It was something that hopefully was based on our values that she’s ingrained in her.

ABERNETHY: At dinner that night, two of the parents tried out on their two daughters the idea from the discussion of banning all electronic media on weekend afternoons. It did not sell.


post05-ethicalchildrenMOTHER: They want their kids to be connected with the family again.

DAUGHTER: I feel really bad for those kids.

MOTHER: I kind of like that idea. I thought we should adopt something like that here.

DAUGHTER: I don’t understand. I mean, what would you do?

MOTHER: What about you, Jen? What do you think about that?

DAUGHTER: No. It’s not a good idea.

ABERNETHY: Whatever the resistance, Kidder looks at the power of new technology and sees an urgent need to anticipate its effects and prevent the worst of them. Indeed, he wants to make his Institute’s top priority now trying to create all over the US what he calls “a culture of integrity.”

KIDDER: I think our ethics is climbing. I think maybe the curve is sort of going up like that. I think our technology is going up like this. Unless we can ensure that there is a moral compass behind our uses of the new technologies, we run the risk of putting ourselves in grave danger. Will people look back at us today and say, “You discovered the digital age, and you frittered away the whole thing on Twitter, on Facebook, on Google, on those sorts of things. What on earth were you thinking?”

  • Ed Gagnon

    The Value of Values

    An individual’s values are established in childhood and serve as filters when determining right from wrong throughout the person’s life. In today’s society, the process of establishing values within children is given little concern. People place greater emphasis on day to day activities and personal ambitions, than they do on the establishment of good and meaningful values within their children. By default, parents are teaching their children that values such as integrity, respect for life, courage of conviction, ensuring a purposeful life, and altruism, are secondary to making a living.

    It does not have to be this way.

    Good and meaningful values are powerful when lived. Values can change a person’s life. Values can change the society in which we live. In the “The Value of Values” we learn how important it is to establish a values-conscious society. We learn the actions that need to be embraced in order to live a values-conscious life. We learn how to sustain the drive and resist the temptations to follow vs. leading.

    “The Value of Values” is a must read for every parent concerned about the direction of our society and the challenges our children will be facing.

    We have three possible choices:
    1) Do nothing different. Complacently accept things as they are and will be.
    2) Hope that our leaders will guide society in the proper direction. Hope this from our leaders despite the day to day evidence that they rank personal ambitions above all else.
    3) Accept our personal responsibility to ourselves and our children. Accept the reality that real change is not passed down from leaders; but rather, it is driven up from the people. Accept the fact that we each have within us the ability to make things different within our social circles; and if each of us accepted this responsibility, we could change the direction of our society for generations to come.

    The choices we make today will determine the society of tomorrow.

  • MaryB

    Ignoring the need to do better in this area with our children (and grandchildren) will only prolong the problem. These things never get better unless we start now, not later.

  • Pat Torngren

    When childrens’ needs are met, they and their behaviour are intrinsically social. They will do whatever they can to get the ‘big people’ to love them. So for e.g. if a child is lying, we need to find out why. A child will lie, only if they have found that telling the truth results in punishment or the loss of the love of their parent’s or significant others whose love they need. If we find that a child is lying, we need to uncover the trauma that has caused the child to learn that lying is a survival skill. If we deal with that (the underlying trauma) the child’s behaviour in the present will change automatically. Children are basically honest unless they have learned that it is dangerous to be honest and that honesty brings punishment.

    Trying to teach them cognitively that lying is wrong, will probably just confuse them. What we need to do is (a) model the behaviour we want to see. Children look up to us to teach them by our actions, what is appropriate behaviour. (b) treat the child with the same kind of respect we want from them — i.e. if we want our children to be honest, we should never lie to our children. (c) make a safe space for them to express their daily hurts and stresses, knowing their feelings will be accepted.

    Antisocial behaviours happen for one of these reasons (1) The child is hurting or overstressed, (2) The child’s basic need for love is not being met, (3) the child doesn’t know what is appropriate for lack of information and appropriate role models. Parenting writer Pam Leo sums it up beautifully when she says, “As we treat the child, the child will treat the world”.

    If we model the ethical behaviours we want our children to adopt, they will automatically adopt them. Behaviours and attitudes are set very early in life, when small children watch their parents in order to learn what is and what isn’t appropriate. Even more important, they learn how to be compassionate, kind and respectful if their parents are compassionate, kind and respectful to them. So if we want to see the kind of changes advocated here, we need to reach and teach the parents, preferably before their child is born, and if not then, as early as possible, before problems manifest.

  • Becca Allison

    Ed, you are absolutely right. I have chosen number three, though at the time I didn’t know I was consciously doing so.
    I vividly remember my first lesson in ethics from my mother. I had forgotten my lunch money – this was the second grade – and the nice lunch lady let me get lunch and said I could pay her back the next day. I told my mother, who gave me the money. When I tried to give it to the lunch lady, she did not remember that I owed it, and told me to keep it. With 7 year old logic, I spent it that afternoon at the corner store. My mother asked where I had gotten the PlayDough – yes, I still remember what I bought – and I told her. She explained to be that I should have returned the money to her, for even if the lunch lady would not take it, the money did not become mine, but was my mother’s. That and other lessons like never taking a toy left lying around outside – “How would you feel if someone took your ball?” grounded me in ethics and morality. I’ve tried to raise my sons that way, and as far as I can see, they learned the lessons well. They are kind, loving and considerate people.
    It is up to us. And up to society if parents cannot or won’t teach the lessons – unfortunately, we have let a lot of it get out of hand. Around the seventies, things began to slip and “If it feels good, do it” took over. As Dr. Phil says, “How’s that working for you?” Not well at all.
    As to the lying, it is a stage all kids go through – we have to show them that lying is worse than facing the consequences of what they are lying about.

  • Sally F.

    I am the aunt of a 19 year old niece. Reading all of the comments about younger children, I realize my niece has no core values, which also means she can’t respect others if she isn’t able to respect herself. She is arrogant, conceited, and gives herself away freely to every boyfriend she’s had since she was fourteen years old. Her mother would actually let boys sleep in the same room with my niece, yet she refused to let her be a cheerleader in high school because she felt that was degrading. My niece is a pathological liar, yet my sister and brother-in-law believe every word their darling daughter tells them. She can do no wrong. My father tells me not to bother with my niece at all, but I feel that it is my duty as her aunt to try to have a discussion with her that might make sense to her. I sense a truly troubled young woman, and when I try to discuss my observations with my sister, she wants no part of it. I seldom see my niece, but at any family gathering she sits with her cellphone or iPad or whatever latest expensive hi-tech gadget she has and checks in with it once a minute. What a generation of monsters we have to deal with. What is wrong with parents today? Is it too much of a chore to bring kids up and support their every whim on top of it all? Is it easier to let them have their way than to rebuke them? Now and then there will be a young person who restores my faith in their generation, but for the most part the kind of helpless, disrespectful, oblivion most are in is amazing.

  • Gil

    Sorry for your loss Sally.
    Your niece is not going to come around after a lifetime of learning to decieve (see Tormgrens response).

  • Cora

    Kidos to Mr. Kidder. I’m the parent of an 11 year old. Manners are top priority for me…a person who has manners means that they CARE about others. It’s not just all about him/herself. How easy is it for a child to say “Please”, “Thank you”, “excuse me”, etc.? But it makes a WORLD of difference to the person hearing it, doesn’t it?? I’m sick of the parents of my generation who I see taking sass from their kids and shrugging their shoulders and either laughing, or chalking it up to adolesence. Sure, kids are allowed their feelings. But parents must require respect…the ones that don’t are fools. It’s frightening. My son has good manners, and I fear that he’ll be left in the dust by many others out there who could care less about anyone else but themselves. But who can blame them when their parents were too afraid to discipline them for fear that their child might not love them anymore?? How silly. Don’t they know that respect = love, and discipline = love? Parents, you are the adults…not your children. Take charge! Read any publication by John Rosemond for further insight. You’ll be glad you did.

  • Melinda

    My parents have been dead for bout 10 years. I am nearing 80. I always thought they were very good and ethical people. But, as I look back and remember them, I find they were snobs-being good and ethical only if they felt those they were being with were of ”good enough stock”. The rest, just pass over and pay no real attention to them. I did not understand why they did not approve of so many of my friends. Turns out, they were just not good enough for me–so my parents thought.