Know the Goal

“The only person you are destined to become
is the person you decide to be.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson –

So how can we help children internalize good values and morals? First, we have to know what our goal is. That may seem obvious, but we sometimes skip this step. We know we want our kids to “be good” or “be nice.” But what do we mean?

Years ago, when I learned to write curricula, I was taught to start each lesson by listing my “behavioral objectives” for the lesson. In other words, I was supposed to note how I wanted children to behave after the lesson, how I hoped it would affect them – specifically, what would they end up knowing, feeling, and doing? So, for example, at the beginning of a lesson plan for four-year-olds on Abraham and the three visitors, I might write: The children will know that Abraham shared his food with three visitors. The children will feel a desire to share. The children will share.

Know, feel, do. I’ve always found behavioral objectives to be a great way to focus on my goals. Behavioral objectives also serve as a measuring stick to evaluate whether or not I achieved my goal. Was I effective? In reality, I can’t see into children’s minds to be certain of what they know. I can’t be sure of what they feel. And what they do as a result of my lesson may not occur in class but may show up later in the week at home or in school. Still, objectives give me direction and remind me that I’m teaching children, not the material.

So when we teach morality, whether we’re parents or classroom teachers, what are our goals? What are we aiming for? Here are my top ten signs of moral wisdom.

1. Responsibility
2. Empathy
3. Self-control
4. Generosity
5. Honesty
6. Gratitude
7. Patience
8. Humility
9. Kindness
10. Love

This is not an exhaustive list, of course, and your top ten might differ from mine. What would you include? What would you exclude? Make your own list. Consider how you would define each virtue on your list, and decide why you think it’s an important characteristic of moral wisdom, or as researcher Michele Borba puts it, “moral intelligence.” Here are my whys.

1. Responsibility

Responsibility means taking ownership of what we say and do, which is a basic requirement for being a moral person. Responsibility basically means “the ability to respond, to reply.” It’s based on caring. Being moral means caring about all that God created – the people, the earth, and the heavens. It means caring about what’s happening in the world around us, both in our personal relationships and in society at large. Because we care, we respond by taking care of people, the earth, and the heavens. We also take responsibility for how we respond. We can never grow wise morally if we’re not willing to take responsibility for our words and actions.

2. Empathy

As I noted previously, according to theorist Martin Hoffman, empathy is the goal of moral development. So what is empathy? Like responsibility, empathy is based on caring. Michele Borba defines it as “identifying and feeling other people’s concerns.”1 We consider other people’s viewpoints. We’re considerate. We often use a related word: compassion, defined as a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” The apostle Paul was talking about empathy when he said, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

3. Self-Control

As Michele Borba puts it, self-control is our “moral muscle.” It “helps [a child] use his head to control his emotions” and helps us “put on the brakes.” It’s often called impulse control. But self-control is not just self-restraint. Self-control works two ways. Not only does it keep us from doing what we believe is wrong, but it also empowers us to do what we believe is right. In that sense, self-control helps us “step on the gas” or “pedal forward” when we need to.

4. Generosity

The act of giving springs from empathy and helps restore the balance of reciprocity that defines morality. Giving in the form of basic sharing is one of the earliest moral lessons we teach children, and we continue to learn the different complexities of sharing as we grow up: sharing with close friends vs. sharing with the homeless, sharing by bank draft vs. sharing in person. As we mature morally, we’re more able to be generous in our giving and sharing. Generosity requires us to reach deeper into our pockets and give not out of our abundance but out of what we have good reason to keep for ourselves.

When it comes to generosity, our first thought is probably about giving money. But as essayist Simone Weil pointed out, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”2 That’s because giving our attention means giving our time, which is often more difficult to give than money.

Generosity is on my list of moral qualities, because morality is based on respect. When we’re morally immature, we tend to brush off others, to pass them by, to ignore them and their concerns, to prejudge them, and to treat them as objects or faceless groups. One sign that we’re maturing morally is that we become generous with our time and attention toward others. We treat them with dignity, listening to them, considering their concerns, and seeing their individual human worth, the imago dei in each of them.

But there’s another reason I include generosity in my top ten: Generosity underpins forgiveness. In fact, give is half of the word forgive. When we forgive, we give up our demand that someone gets payback for hurting us. We let go of our anger and bitterness toward them. We give up at our attempts to get even. While basic morality operates on the principle of reciprocity, forgiveness does not. It operates on a higher principle: mercy. Forgiveness is an act of generosity. It’s generosity of spirit.

5. Honesty

People who are morally wise are honest. They can be trusted. They’re clear, open and transparent. They have integrity, which in the words of Brené Brown is “choosing to practice your values rather than simply professing them.”3 Integrity means following moral and ethical principles and having high moral character. Integrity integrates our beliefs, values, and experiences into a meaningful whole.

Honest people are also ethical, which means, by definition, that they adhere to “high standards of honest and honorable dealing, . . . especially in the professions or in business.” Some of Jesus’s strongest rebukes were directed toward corrupt, dishonest, unethical religious leaders. “You belong to your father, the devil,” he said, “and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). This straight talk from Jesus was meant to shake up and wake up those who were supposed to be leading people to truth.

Honesty honors the imago dei within us. In our dealings with other people, honesty shows that we’re morally strong. There can be no morality without honesty.

6. Gratitude

One of the first moral lessons we teach children is how to respect people by using good manners. And one of our first lessons in manners is how to say, “Please” and “Thank you.” Gratitude, expressed as manners is important, but it’s only a start. Mature gratitude is heart-felt and overflows in actions that give back or pass it on. In that sense, gratitude is linked with generosity.

Diana Butler Bass recently wrote an entire book on gratitude entitled Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. She links heart-felt gratitude to moral action: “[Y]ou might define gratitude as social responsibility that demands action through public commitments to charity, stewardship, volunteerism, and social institutions. You believe that gratitude is an essential foundation of civic life.”4

I like to think of gratitude as appreciation, because that seems to deepen its meaning. Appreciation recognizes the value of something – or someone – and acknowledges their worth and quality. In fact, appreciation increases the value of whatever or whoever is appreciated. Which gets back to respect – morality. As we grow more mature morally, we increasingly value the worth and quality of others. Our gratitude deepens, along with our reverence, wonder, and awe for all that God created.

7. Patience

The most impatient people in the world are infants.

They have no problem letting us know that they want something, although what that something is, we don’t always know. But they make it clear that they want it now. They are demanding, but we understand that they are not yet making a conscious moral choice. Fast forward to adulthood, and that same demanding behavior is a sure sign of moral immaturity. People of high moral character have learned patience, a quality that is essential for relating to other people.

Patience, in psychological terms, can be called “deferred gratification,” the ability to wait to get something we really want or to wait to be rewarded for spending time and effort to achieve a goal. When we have to be patient over a long period of time, we call it perseverance or endurance.

Patience is also what allows us to be “slow to anger,” another essential for respecting others. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” wrote James, “for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20, NIV).

For young children, I define patience as waiting without complaining. When children are able to wait without complaining and to defer gratification, that tells us they’re growing toward moral maturity.

8. Humility

A comic strip taught me a life-changing lesson about humility:
Snoopy sits at his typewriter on the roof of his doghouse, telling Charlie Brown that he’s writing a book on theology. Charlie Brown says he hopes Snoopy has a good title. Snoopy says he does: “Have you ever considered that you might be wrong?”5

When I read that, I realized for the first time that I had never considered that I might be wrong. How arrogant of me! I had been thinking I was right about all the important things. But I’m not. I’m wrong about many things. You are too. It’s just that we don’t know what those things are – until we do. The more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know.

Humility is acknowledging that there is a great deal that we do not know. There’s always someone who knows more than we do. Humility also acknowledges that whatever we do, we are not the best. There’s always someone who will do it better. And humility is fine with that.

According to ancient Jewish philosopher Bahya ibn Paquda, “All virtues and duties are dependent on humility.” Taking responsibility? Yes. Empathy? Yes. Self-control, generosity, honesty? Yes. Gratitude? Definitely. Moral wisdom can’t exist without humility.

Being humble includes repenting, which means being able to say, “I’m sorry” and trying to turn a hurtful situation around, making amends as best we can.

Being humble also includes tolerance. That may sound strange – morality can’t tolerate immorality, right? Right. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Michele Borba explains it well in Building Moral Intelligence: “Tolerance does not require that we suspend moral judgment . . . it does require that we respect differences.” Madeleine Albright, a former U.S. Secretary of State, who has worked with many people of different beliefs, races, and cultures, says she doesn’t like to use the term tolerance, because it has the connotation of “putting up with” someone or something. Instead, she prefers to use the term respect.6 That’s really what tolerance is. All people are created in God’s image. All deserve to be treated with love and respect, even if we disagree with their beliefs or behavior.

The apostle Paul said, “I try to find common ground with everyone” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Humility says both, “What can I bring to the table?” and “What can I learn at the table?”

9. Kindness

Eleanor Roosevelt, in the introduction to the Book of Common Sense Etiquette, wrote, “The basis of all good human behavior is kindness.”7 Kindness is a broad umbrella that can encompass a wide range of behaviors. In Old English, kind (spelled cynd) meant family or lineage. Generally, people favor their family (or in olden days, their tribe), treating them with more kindness and grace than they give to people outside the family. So kindness is treating someone with grace and favor.

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Luke 10:27). Father Thomas Hopko suggests that this last part means, “Love your neighbors as if they were one of you,” meaning one of your family, one of your group, one of your own “tribe.”8 That means treating others with the same kindness, favor, and grace that we would grant to people in our own families and social groups.

When I think of people who have been kind to me, the person at the top of the list is a writing mentor who believed in me and encouraged me. She took the time to get to know me, and when I was with her, I had her full attention. She made me feel important and welcome in her world. What’s more, she treated everyone this way. Encouraging the good in others, being considerate, gracious, and helpful – that’s what it is to be kind.

“Feel how when you extend a kindness, however simple, you are energized and not depleted,” says Krista Tippett in her book Becoming Wise. “Scientists, again, are proving that acts of kindness and generosity are literally infectious, passing from stranger to stranger to stranger. Kindness is an everyday byproduct of all the great virtues, love most especially.”9

10. Love

All ten of the moral qualities in my list overlap. As with Russian stacking dolls, one opens to reveal another inside, which opens to reveal yet another. Inside responsibility is empathy, and inside empathy is self-control, and inside self- control is kindness, and so on and so on until at the core, we find Love. Not because love is the smallest but because it’s the force that energizes all the others and holds them together. “The greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13).

What, then, is love?

The answer is not so much what as who. “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Love is the Creator and Source of life. Jesus is Love in the flesh, Love incarnate, Love in person. The Holy Spirit animates imago dei in us. And because we’re created in the image of God, we recognize love in Jesus. We see love in the way he treated people, in what he did and how he spoke.

Because of imago dei, we are primed to sense when we’re being loved and when we’re not. We know that if someone loves us, they will respect and trust us. They will treat us with kindness, dignity, honor, consideration, generosity, grace, and mercy – at least most of the time. Of course, the converse is true as well: If we love someone, we will respect and trust them. We will treat them with kindness, dignity, honor, consideration, generosity, grace, and mercy – at least most of the time. None of us is perfect. We all have our crabby days. Sometimes we’re inconsiderate toward the people we love. Sometimes we discourage them. Sometimes they’re inconsiderate and discourage us. But real love returns to respect, honor, and kindness as the norm of the relationship. The modus operandi. The foundation.

In the 1800s, writer Dinah Mulock Craik, in her book A Life for a Life, wrote, “Oh, the comfort – the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person – having neither to weigh thoughts, nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.” That’s love.

Responsibility, empathy, self-control, generosity, honesty, gratitude, patience, humility, kindness, and love. Those are my ten essential signs of a fully functioning moral compass. As you may have noticed, several of them are known as fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23).

That brings me to one more important point before we move into practical ways to guide our children into moral wisdom: “In [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The reverse is true as well: In us God lives and moves and has being. Imago dei. The point? We are not alone in our efforts to grow morally wise. We have the help of God’s Spirit.

Adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley.
All rights reserved.

Top image by AGBCSX from Pixabay


1 Michele Borba, Building Moral Intelligence (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002).

2 Simone Pétrement, Simone Weil: A Life (NY: Pantheon, 1976).

3 Brené Brown, Rising Strong (NY: Random House, 2015).

4 Diana Butler Bass, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018).

5 Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz, eds., Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life (Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2002).

6 Madeleine Albright in an interview on Public Radio International’s The World, 4.25.18.

7 Eleanor Roosevelt, The Book of Common Sense Etiquette (np: Open Road Media, 2016).

8 Father Thomas Hopko, “Living in Communion,” Communion, Orthodox Peace Fellowship, The Netherlands, 2/1/95.

9 Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise (NY: Penguin, 2016).