Living and Teaching Ethics in Your Family

Molleen Matsumura

Ask Lois Kellerman, a longtime Ethical Culture Leader, what she's thinking when she creates moral education programs for children, and the first thing she says is, "You're creating more than a curriculum—you're building a culture that nurtures the growth of humane values. Even tiny details make a difference. For example, at the Humanist Community Sunday School in Palo Alto, we had kids take their shoes off for two reasons: It was a noncoercive but effective way to keep kids from running around and hurting themselves during quiet times, and it incorporated a habit familiar to the many Asian American kids in the group. Of course, once you set up the framework, you will have to sustain it." The same is true for families.

Freethinking parents generally hope to raise kids who are independent thinkers. They often remark, "Sure, I want to raise my kids to be moral. But I don't want to brainwash them." But not all teaching is brainwashing, and teaching is exactly what kids need from their parents. Home is where they learn important skills and attitudes—from language to self-care and social skills— well before the first day of school. Just remember, education (providing leadership for your kids as they learn life skills) is different from indoctrination (pouring ideas into their heads without inviting critical examination).

Extensive research has confirmed that parenting styles strongly affect children's ethical development. Authoritative (as opposed to authoritarian) parenting, which combines responsiveness with high and clearly expressed expectations, is most successful.1

Researchers have found a consistent CCr~\\\

. rr rT11 Children s understanding picture of childrearing effects . .. [PJarents ,

, 11111 i i • -i of morality is the same whether who tend to be harshly and arbitrarily au- '

, . , theyre of one religion, another thoritarian or power-assertive... are less ' ,

,., , , riii ii religion or no religion. But if its likely to be successful than those who place

, . , , ... simply indoctrination, its worse substantial emphasis on induction or rea-

than doing nothing. It interferes soning, presumably in an attempt to be with moral development.

responsive to and understanding of their child's point of view."2 —Larry Nucd, Erector,

An especially powerful example of the Office for Studies influence of parenting style on moral devel- in Moral Devdopment, opment is found in the book The Altruistic LTmva-sky °f lllinois

Personality by researchers Samuel and Pearl

Oliner. The Oliners conducted over 700 interviews with survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe—both "rescuers" (those who actively rescued victims of Nazi persecution) and "non-rescuers" (those who were either passive in the face of the persecution or actively involved in it). The study revealed profound differences in the upbringing of the two groups—in both the language and practices that parents used to teach their values.

It likely comes as no surprise that the morality of adults reflects their moral education as children. What may surprise some, given traditional beliefs about moral education, is which kind of moral education leads to which result.

Non-rescuers were twenty-one times more likely than rescuers to have grown up in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify "reasoning" as an element of their moral education. "Explained," the authors note, "is the word most rescuers favored" in describing their parents' way of communicating rules and ethical concepts.

Both the Oliners' results and the central role children play in their own moral development are underlined by cross-cultural research from the Office for Studies in Moral Development at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Children in cultures around the world tend to reach certain landmarks in moral development reliably and on time, according to lead researcher Larry Nucci, regardless of what their parents do or don't do. "Children's understanding of morality is the same whether they're of one religion, another religion or no religion," says Nucci.

There is just one major exception, one way in which parents can actually impede their children's moral growth: "If it's simply indoctrination," he says, "it's worse than doing nothing. It interferes with moral development."4

The one practice conservative religious thought insists is vitally important in moral education—teaching unquestioning obedience to "absolute" rules—turns out to be the single least productive thing we can do for our children's moral development.

Instead, the best thing we can do is to encourage our kids to actively engage in their own moral development—asking questions, challenging the answers they are given, and working hard to understand the reasons to be good. Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at the University of Missouri, puts it just that clearly: "The most useful form of character education encourages children to think for themselves."5

The "authoritative" parenting style that relies on warmth and explanation has been shown to be successful in raising ethical children. What could be more compatible with a family culture based on humanistic principles of love and reason?

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