How Do You Raise Moral Children?

What is your number one priority for your child? In an article in last Sunday’s New York Times Dr. Adam Grant of Wharton Business School says that several studies reveal that most parents place far greater emphasis on caring than achievement. Now if you are even a fraction as cynical as I am, you probably think that parents answered the survey that way because they know they should value character over success. If you were to observe what families actually invest their time and energy in, it would be hard to prove that they actually believe their own answer.

Nonetheless, Grant takes parents at their word and asks how to go about raising a moral child. It’s an interesting article that touches on the nature vs nurture debate, whether a parent should praise a child’s actions (“That was a helpful thing you just did.”) or their character (“You are such a helper.”), and the difference between guilt and shame. For the Christian it is important to note that our goal isn’t to raise moral children but children who love and follow Jesus. Those aren’t the same things. Moralism is not the gospel no matter how many people think it is.

Dr. Grant concludes the article by referencing a famous experiment in which kids in elementary and middle school were given tokens for winning a game. Each child was then able to keep the tokens or donate some of them to kids who lived in poverty. But before the kids received the tokens and had to make a choice on whether or not to be generous to the less fortunate, they watched a teacher play the game and make the same decision.

What the experiment revealed is that the influence of the role model was significant and that their actions were far more influential than their words. In different versions of the experiment the teacher alternated between being generous and selfish in their actions and preaching to the kids the wisdom of generosity and selfishness. The results were clear: the words didn’t make near as much difference as their actions. Even when a teacher behaved generously but preached on the virtues of selfishness, kids behaved generously themselves.

Children learn generosity not by listening to what their role models say, but by observing what they do.

All this serves as a good reminder that your children are watching their parents and more is caught than taught. You can tell your children church is a priority, but if they see you prioritizing other things, then don’t be surprised that they see church as something to do when nothing else is going on.

You can tell your children to serve others but if they see you focused on your needs, then don’t be surprised that they act as selfishly as you do.

You can even preach the importance of character, but if they observe you treasuring achievement (yours or theirs), well by now you get the point.

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