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How Do We Raise Morally Healthy Children?

By , Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt, Ph.D.
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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RO2BENT 3/6/2020
You mean we can’t just throw a smart phone at them and expect good results? Report
L_DROUIN 3/6/2020
I taught in a church school and I had one rule which I posted under a picture of Jesus : RESPECT. I taught this by example. Instead of tattle-tales, I taught them to talk to me about themselves. When they became impatient with others, I would tell them that "If I can be patient, so can they". When it came to bad behavior, I didn't ask them "Why?" I just told them "No".
I do also believe that children will act out what they see at home or with friends. Just watch how a baby learns new things. He copies what others do. It's very important to watch the peers that older children have.
Great insight. Report
SHOAPIE 1/5/2020
Great article and discussion Report
The hardest part is finding volunteer opportunities that include young kids Report
teach with your actions Report
Without The Ten Commandments as our moral compas, all "morals" become is a personal point of view. When we go back to The Ten Commandments as a point of moral agreement, THEN we have a solid foundation. Otherwise? "Morals" are subject to conjecture. Report
In a culture based on selfishness and greed, winners and losers, and rampant consumerism, I don't find this kind of behaviour shocking. Self-entitlement is the standard. The kind of cultural shift necessary to create a critical mass of kindness is lacking. Report
Morality has nothing to do with religion. A great many religious people are immoral. Most people know when what they are doing is wrong, the exception are sociopaths. I have spent a lot of time conveying my beliefs to my children, and they have grown up to be socially responsible adults. Report
One cannot pass on what one doesn't have, whether that's solid moral values or faith it. Yes--there are children who are weak, morally and character-wise and will run with the pack. Parents ...BOTH of them...need to instill those values and build that character. Report
I am late to comment on this topic. The cruel bullies on that bus did a monstrous deed! They have no human/humane feelings and their futures are likely void of any wholesome endeavors. They are losers! They shame the human race! Shame is an emotion they cannot know or feel. Pitiful creatures exist, and they consort with other perverts. Are they hopelessly immune to civilized conduct. Yes, I think so-- however, some can be "restored" by an awakening of morality. Parents produce off-spring, and without guidance and breeding, monsters are the results. Parents who do not see this tragic happening as a serious event, are themselves lacking in conscience! Our society is afflicted with "cultural rot"--- just watch the TV trash that is broadcast into our homes! Wholesome TV is not "profitable" I conclude. We are losing our dignity and losing our souls---- but there are good citizens who object to this immorality, and this is why the dear lady, Karen Klein, was offered the gift of many thousands of dollars. A nice gesture indeed to give her "comfort" after being victimized by thugs! God help America. . . Report
Very well written & informative article Michelle! As a 6-12 Spanish teacher for the past 15 years, I can say there is a huge difference in this generation of young people! HUGE! Report
I am very concerned about raising my children in a divorce situation where they get a whole different set of values from the other side of the family. Sometimes parenting in divorce feels like a competition with children caught in the middle. Report
Teaching emotionally disturbed students for the last 22 years - sadly, I see and hear much of what those boys said all too often. And too often - the kids have more morals than their parents - and that's not much. I believe it goes back a couple of generations too. Report
Kids emulate what they see and are taught at home. Just sayin'. Report
Mimawelizabeth - I love the key to success paragraph at the end. It's what I needed today after an especially trying day with my 8 year old son yesterday. Thank you! Report
We raised our children to love the Lord Jesus Christ. Not only did they learn this consistently in their church activities from infancy, but we tried to model it (VERY imperfectly, of course) in our home environment. The great men of the past have adhered to traditional Judeo-Christian values, and the best child-rearing advice comes straight from the Bible. Old fashioned? Nope. Timeless. And both of those sons grew into loving, kind, God-fearing men. The one who is married is a good example of a Christian husband and father, and they are also lovingly raising their children (my oldest two grandchildren) in the "fear and admonition of the Lord." When this is consistent, it overcomes LOTS of parental ineptitude, and the morals you address have been instilled since birth.
Really, what better way to live?? -- Maryjean Report
My husband and I were both bullied as kids: by family members, friends, other kids, and teachers. We strove to instill a good ethic in our own daughter, who as a child and teenager, was a caring person. At ten years old, she suddenly expressed a desire to visit the elderly in nursing homes, which we were thrilled to help her to do. She often gathered the bullied children in her classes into a coherent group to do various fun and service activities. Somehow, when she became an adult, she became a bully - to us, to her friends, and to her co-workers. We still don't understand this transformation (abuse of power?) and often analyze our past together to see if there were any clues or signs that should have alerted us to this trait in her. Although she still performs some service work, I am suspect now of her motivation. Environment or nature? For some it may be environment, for others, it may just be their nature.

How interesting that not too many respondents sited a religious ethic for their moral foundation. Where do they think our moral guidelines spring from? 'Do unto others...' is a Christian ethic, as is being a 'Good Samaritan,' and it goes on and on. Morality doesn't just fall from the sky like raindrops or magically materialize in the air we breathe. Report
When my son Scott was 16, he volunteered at our church's Vacation Bible School; he asked for the Kindergarten class, because he liked that age. Now, my son had severe ADD, and was all boy (loud by nature, liked to rough-house, etc). He had lived through enough heartbreak in his 16 years to last a lifetime.

I split from his bio father when Scott was a year old, and he saw him just a handful of times as the decades passed. I remarried, and Scott embraced his new stepsiblings and stepfamily; however, when we divorced, Scott was abandoned again, this time by the man who was his father for over 14 years.

I had also been seriously injured about two years earlier, and still suffer effects from brain and spinal damage. Scott stepped up to take care of me and his little sister; both physically at home (errands, cleaning, cooking, etc), and working his way through his last two years of high school and two years of college.

Back to the VBS... At the end of the week, the mom of a boy in Kindergarten asked if I would talk to the parents of the boys in Scott's class. My heart stopped: was he too rough? Did he do something that upset the kids or the parents? I went to the Fellowship Hall, and faced the several couples waiting for me.

What they said brings tears to my eyes even now! "We'd like to know what you did raising your son, any hints you can offer us, because we'd all like OUR sons to turn out just like Scott..." I searched for an answer, but all I could think of is: he ALWAYS knew I loved him, no matter what he did or how we argued.

NO walking away in anger; talk the issues out respectfully, and agree to disagree if that was the case. Always believe in him as a person, expect unselfish behavior, and be excited for his independent - and HAPPY - future! But most of all, just love him, and make sure he knows it. (This also worked for my daughter!)

Peter Yarrow: Don't Laugh At Me -

We can do this!

Don Report
I have been a middle school teacher for 20 years and while there is always an exception to the rule, it has been my experience that Bullies Raise Bullies. Show me a middle school bully and, well the apple does not fall far from the tree. I have always found that a child's home life influences his/her behavior way more than peer pressure. Report
As a society, we expect no responsible behavior or any kind of societal contribution from children, but in the founding of this nation, we had 12 year olds learning trades and 14 year olds serving as ambassadors to foreign nations. Kids learned foreign languages, detailed histories, & complicated maths at very young ages, mostly homeschooled or privately tutored because there was no public school system. Maybe that is the problem, parents don't feel the obligation to teach their children anything because we have relegated all teaching to an amoral government school system. Parents - teach your children to be adults of value with values! Report
Kids who get away will bullying grow up to be adults and parents who bully then raise kids who bully. (This is a generalized statement, but often holds true.) I have 2 neighbors who are bullies - one threatened my life and another disrupts everyone around him with his and his buddy's partying. Getting the cops and association involved has not helped much, though I keep fighting for it.

I say this because I was bullied as a kid by my family and peers and it's continued into my adulthood. It wasn't until I started sticking up for myself, knowing the laws and rules, and continuing to fight for my rights that I finally made a dent in forcing my neighbors to stop bullying me and other neighbors. Which is why I think not only do we need to teach kids to not bully and to stop others from being bullies, but also give kids the strength to step up and report their bullies. When we help give them self-worth and self-confidence then give them chances to stand up for themselves (I don't mean facing the bully alone, but by having the courage to ask others for help). If I had anyone willing to help me face my bullies as a kid I wouldn't have been as tormented and destroyed by them; but, every person - peers and adults - threw me aside and essentially said I wasn't worth fighting for. If someone had stood by me and told me my life meant something perhaps I wouldn't have had to wait until my late 20s before I finally learned how to stand up for myself. Report
I was appalled when I saw this story on CNN. We've always told our sons we don't tolerate bullying, and we've never heard anything to suggest they've ever done it, thank goodness! Report
Just to add some additional info - the fund for the aide was actually started by a Canadian, although I'm sure people from all over the world have contributed to it. Way to go Canada! (and happy Canada Day tomorrow!) Report
i am a bus aide also, and although most the kids i take are special needs and or preschool i have worked with the older kids also. its trickey but you gotta get it under control before it gets out of hand. cause it can get out of hand fast. the parents have to be the model to show the kids how they are to act. i try to model to my nephew that has some special needs and if he starts acting up or smarting off with me i HAVE to nick it in the butt right there and then other wise he would be out of control for the rest of day Report
its easy said then done ,yes today children are not easy to deal with,parenting has com more stressful than before , i have 4 yr son ,he is very naughty,he misbehaves most of the time ,doent listen to wat we say .we try to explain him but nothing he really follows ,am really worried and concerned abt his behaviour ,how to make him morally and disciplind Report
Our son is in Boy Scouts. 2 points of the Scout Law are to be courteous and kind. It is great to have our son in an organization that teaches so much and has great core values. Report
Kids aren't the only ones behaving badly. I had a friend who reported her boss who was a bully. She ended up having to resign because her only option was to return to the job with the bully-boss. To my dismay, this man goes to my church...certainly he KNOWS better. Doing and knowing are not the same thing. Report
I saw the video of this and I'm not sure it was 100% BOYS, it could have involved both sexes. It seems to be politeness has gone out the door for kids of this generation. I base this somewhat upon the way I see my own grandchildren behave versus how I treated my grandmother. The children of America need more attention given to what they are doing and more discipline. I believe most kids are too easily led into accepting and following the actions of other kids in their crowd.
I hope the lady takes the half a million she got in donations and decides to just retire! Report
Thank you for writing a down to earth article. Report
I remember as an elementary school student I was bullied because I was smart and liked...really loved answering questions in class. Books were better friends to me than people.....As I saw this horrible behavior I remember that people behave badly out of their own insecurities and fears. It doesnt justify the behavior it gives us a hint where it comes from and as parents where we can work to improve outcomes when our children are not with us. Encourage them in their uniqueness giving them ability to appreciate differences without judgment. During the lenten season...I conscously tried to avoid judgment and judging others. If I caught myself I went to the bible to read a chapter and refocus on God who is the only one authorized to pass judgment. Try this for is amazing to see how our nature as humans take us first to a place of judging with our critical eye. Report
I've seen this clearly with the children in my daughter's grade. There are clearly divided "cliques", particularly among the girls. This was evident at a recent award event where the two groups of girls were seperated by no less than 3 seats on each side of the table. In talking with my daughter about this, she says that most of the other "group" of girls are actually pretty nice, but there are three of the girls that are just plain mean and spiteful. It's as though they have an elitist attitude. Two of the three are definitely priviliged and I can definitely see where they could get this attitude. I'm just sad that the parents don't recognize what they are teaching them. Report
One of the things I often notice is that even "nice" people treat their own family members badly... when my husband and I married, 42 years ago, we set out believing that our spouses, the people we loved most, deserved our best and most courteous behavior... and we extended that to our sons.... when I hear people calling their children names or kids screaming obscenities to their parents, it is painful. I am a high school teacher and often come into contact with students who are good kids (they ALL are) but who have been treated disrespectfully by those who should love them so much.. it creates a cognitive dissonance that makes it harder to behave.

The other issue, of course, is empathy... to start when kids are little with discussions of the feelings of others.. whether in the books we read, with shows we watched, or in play ground situations.... empathy isn't always a natural thing, but it CAN be learned.

And all the commenters who talked about modeling.. so true. They don't hear a word we say, but they hear everything we do. EVERYTHING! Report
Luckily, my boys had good examples in parent, grandparents, and great grandparents that they grew up with. Even when small, my oldest has had respect for the elderly and disabled. My youngest enjoys children (He would make a great history teacher). I do think that there is a deep down morality in most that can show even if their examples aren't so great though. I had friends here and there that came from not so great homes and made it ok. As far as the boys on the bus, certainly it was the pack mentality picking on a "weaker" member. Report
The article assumes the parent's are moral. My guess is if someone investigated the children's parents they would find that the parents model, communicate and reinforce bad behavior to their children. Brain development is an excuse for bad behavior. Until the past 2-3 generations society demanded civility and respect from children long before they were 21. One way to see how society has changed is looking at how kid's TV shows have changed. . Report
So timely and so frightening. I see parents completely abrogating responsibility, then complaining when their child is in trouble (or, worse, flying into a rage about their child being accused of misbehavior). It's truly shocking and only seems to be getting worse. Report
Thank you for making the connection with adult behaviour. Workplaces have become playgrounds for grown-up bullies, and most managers don't seem to get any support from their organization to learn how to be good managers. Either they let bullies run rampant, or they resort to bullying behaviour themselves. Politics is no better. Young people who want to learn about the governance of their country are subjected to the same dynamics and behaviours that occur on the playground - some role models! The problem is that bad behaviour does bring results in our society. Report
I certainly agree with the core of the message given here. Raising your children is hard; but leading by example is one of the most important things you can do. Report
Having worked with children and in some cases with parents, today's children are different from the children of 15, 20 years ago!! I think the responsibility of this lies with the parents, the first teachers in a child's life. Children mimic what they learn, when you are told shut up, get out of here, called names, pushed around, cursed at, then of course you will do this behavior yourself!!

I've worked with these families, trying to show them a more positive way to parent, do I think they understood what I was trying to convey...NO...., they only wanted their certificate saying they attended each class!!! It's sad they were ordered to come for parenting classes, but no where in that order did it ask for feedback from the instructor other than sessions completed!!!

I pray that these children will learn the difference from good behavior and bad behavior through school, good friendships, relatives, and great teachers. We need these children ....they are our future, and we all look forward to a bright and beautiful future! Report
I think we all need to be brought up to be sensitive to other people's feelings, and be kind. No-one is going to succeed all the time, but if you do something mean when you really know what you did is unkind you feel bad. This what helps to develop conscience. Rewarding good behavior with praise and gratitude reinforces these impulses far more than cash. I remember being very upset as a 10 year old when a neighbor offered to pay me for running errands which I had asked if I could do just because I wanted to help. If children are not encouraged they do not develop these impulses. A genuinely felt " thank you" and taking an interest in the young person is far more valuable than dismissing them with cash. Report
I think it is important for society as a whole to also take responsibility for not allowing behavior that is disrespectful to the rights of others. There has been a tendency to tolerate bad behavior either out of apathy or fear. A bully must be held accountable not only by themselves and, when they are children, by their parents but by us all.

The comment by Trilliantoo shows an example of a situation where a bully is not being held accountable. Officials; be they police, teachers, or management, are not the only members of a community that should have the responsibility of enforcing our communities values as to respectful conduct. Part of being a model of good behavior is not only being respectful to others but standing up when others are not. Report
There also has to be consequences. I am dealing with a bully at work, she bullies everyone daily to the point of literally making others sick. Her behavior also means that others cannot have lunch or breaks at all (violation of the law).

But there are no consequences!!! She's not reprimanded, fired, sent home early without pay, given written warnings - nothing. The bosses tell the injured parties we have to deal with it, and be patient because she is young. She will learn in time.

My question is - what is she learning by being a bully and having no repercussions from that? The people who are suffering the consequences (including being threatened with being fired) are the ones who are never allowed to sit, or to eat month after month after month.

If there is no punishment / consequences, nothing will stop the bullies from bullying.

good blog Report
I certainly do believe that such children have PARENTS who have an "attitude". Children learn what they see. Report
First of all, I believe many of the tormentors were girls, not boys.

But raising moral children is not always easy. For some, religion helps. For others not so much. Some children have mental health issues and substance abuse issues which make it much harder to manage them. Professional help should be sought. That aside, by in large, I feel children watch the adults around them to learn appropriate behavior. Do as I say, not as I do does not generally work. As adults, we set poor examples when we belittle others who we do not agree with; people we have judged. I think healthy conversations with our children is important. As is taking responsibility for our own actions and inactions and making our children do the same. I teach also and find that many parents are quick to blame others for their children's poor choices. This does not help them mature. Life does not owe these youngsters anything. They need clear guideline and consistency. Yelling doesn't help. Consequences do... positive for good choices and negative for poor ones. It doesn't need to be a fight. You did not do your homework, so I see you have made the choice to have no TV or computer for the evening. No yelling. No judging... just stating already established guidelines. For some, though. this requires close monitoring. Ie, show me your agenda book and your homework and if it is done and done well, you will have earned your computer time. It can be such a challenge for some youngsters and their families... but if we are consistent, show unconditional love, model good behavior and hold kids accountable... it will help. Report
I don't think believing in God automatically makes you a better person, I teach, and know quite a few kids from 'God fearing' families who are cruel to other children (usually the children who are of a different religion, interestingly enough)Not all of the Christian familes, but a few. Quite simply, parents just need to model good behaviour and punish poor behaviour, and stop expecting TV to raise their kids. Report
The most important thing we have done is let Prayer be taken out of School ... this nation was founded on God .. and we the Christians have ducked our heads in the Sand ( me included ) and let people who don"t know our God ... and have our principles run our Children .. our Country .. They hate us because They hated our Jesus and we stand by and let them well im fighting back as hard as I can Number one pray like you have never prayed 2 stand up for what is right 3 try to get involved teach when you can and most important vote .... vote .. vote growing up I would have never thought we would see what we are seeing today would you ... lets fight back .... Report
How do we raise MORAL young people???? We teach them to believe in KNOW God, to LOVE God, and to ask Him to forgive them for their sins and accept his provision of Christ on the cross for this amoral world, that is the answer, but no one is believing it. That is MHO! Report
I know these children were extreme, but as a public school teacher, I can tell you that if there were cameras in the classrooms, many adults would be shocked, and I work at a pretty good school. At the same time, I can imagine that students must act similarly at home, but parents have many more years of behaviors to remember which might help balance the experience. Report