How Do We Raise Morally Healthy Children?


By: , – Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt, Ph.D.
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You may have heard the recent news about a school bus aide who was tormented to the point of tears by a group of middle school students. The appalling encounter was caught on video and went viral on YouTube. News stories, internet videos and even thousands of dollars of sympathy donations are among the reactions of shocked Americans across the country.  The questions are rampant:  How could the tormenters behave that way?  How does a person sit idly while victimized?  Could the bus aide have done anything to stop the boys?  What did the parents do (or not do) to raise boys that would behave that way?

At some point, all of us have been the victim of someone’s bad judgment, whether it be a comment or glare because of our age, weight, or some physical feature.  It is wrong, but we cannot escape it.  Why are we compelled to hurt other people?  Even worse, why do some take pleasure in hurting others? 

Why do people behave badly?
Although our own personality traits and personal histories have some influence over behavior, many people act out against others because of the presence of influential peers. Most people conform and act badly at some point, even when they know that it is wrong.  Most people fall easily into the flow of group influence (after all, it’s harder to stand up against others than to stand up with them).  Additionally, most people hold prejudices, big or small, whether they acknowledge it or not. 

If you take the ingredients of conformity, group influence and prejudice, and put them in a giant mixing bowl, the outcome can be devastating.  Then add in adolescents who are more susceptible to conformity (especially in groups of 3 or more), whose brains are less developed than adults, and who are especially attuned to the importance of fitting in with their peers.  The result? Potentially, something even more devastating.

Why do kids (and adults) bully at all?  They want to feel connected, be recognized and have power.  For young people, social exclusion is something to be avoided at all costs.  They fear the consequences of saying they won’t do what their peers are doing.  The boys on the bus acted like a ''pack,'' feeding off of each other. None were saying anything new or different; they just kept trying to outdo each other’s cruelty with what they thought were cleverly constructed insults.  They were conforming to their peer group.

Although it's no excuse for bad behavior, brain development may also play a role in the boys’ actions. The front part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex, which is located behind the forehead) does not fully develop until we are in our twenties.  The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for making decisions, suppressing impulses and moderating social behavior.  In other words, the part of the brain responsible for making good judgment is unfortunately the last part to develop.  Not all adolescents channel their bad decision making into the same things or to the same extremes, but the boys on the bus channeled theirs into emotional cruelty.

What can we do to raise morally healthy children?
Most parents are well-intentioned.  They meet their children’s basic needs, provide love and nurturing and try to grow well-functioning little people.  However, how much attention is spent on raising morally healthy children? 
How do we instill a sense of morality in our children so that they are more likely to resist the urge to behave badly?
  • Model.  You are a role model for your child.  Your kids are learning from you even when you don’t think they are paying attention.  For last two years, I have worked with a school on an anti-bullying project.  The staff and administrators are committed to creating a healthier environment for the students.  The parents, however, can be seen and heard doing all the wrong things: Speaking badly about others, engaging in social exclusion and interfering with others’ social relationships, all while in the presence of their children.  Our kids pick up on these things.
  • Communicate.  My solution to most parent-child conflicts? Talk about it.  We simply don’t talk enough.  Only about a quarter of families sit down together for dinner each night.  And the media presence in our children’s lives is extensive (approximately 80% of kids under the age of 5 use the internet).  As parents, it is our responsibility to teach them how to interpret the information they receive.  The school bus aide story is a perfect example of that.  Have a substantive teaching moment with your child if he or she hears about the story or asks about it.  Don’t just react and rant and rave.  Teach.  Communicate.  Discuss right and wrong.
  • Reinforce.  As parents, we have no problem identifying inappropriate behavior, but we do not always balance that with positive feedback for good behavior (in this case, behaviors that show good moral judgment).  Make it your mission to pay attention to polite actions and words.  Encourage and respond to a child’s helping hand.  No need to overdo it, but pick out those particularly ''moral'' moments and let your kids know that they're doing a good job.
  • Do good.  When I was moving about a year ago, I was carrying boxes to my car.  My neighbor’s adolescent son (who I had never met) was outside playing basketball.  I offered to pay him to help me.  Without hesitation, he put down the ball and came to my aid.  He would not take money from me.  His father came out afterwards and I relayed the story.  He said that he taught his boys that you help people when they need it.  They didn’t expect money and weren’t raised to take it.  Sadly, I suppose, this surprised me.  Paying him $20 for the hard work he did seemed completely appropriate (and necessary) in my mind.  In the boy’s mind, he simply did what he should do. More kids need to learn to ''do good'' for no reason but helping other people.
There are countless ways we can teach our children to be good citizens. How do you instill morals in your own children?  Do you think this generation of children is different from past generations?  Do you model healthy behavior for your child?  As a parent, what do you think is your responsibility?

Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence. She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring. She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs. Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence. The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children’s lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties. Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve. She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.

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