“Behavior is generally learned by imitating observed experiences, so the more examples of caring our kids witness, the greater the chance that those will be the behaviors they copy.”
– Michele Borba, Building Moral Intelligence
As my sixteen-year-old son and I stepped out of the Department of Motor Vehicles, I tossed him the keys to my car. He had just earned his driver’s license. I swallowed my nervous mom worries and said, “You drive us home.” I knew that was what my dad would have done for me. He always treated me with a generous grace that told me he trusted me and believed in me. Now here I was, able to grant the same to my son. But now I could see from the parent’s perspective. As my son drove home, and I worked at keeping my backseat driver’s mouth shut, I realized that my own driving habits had been his example.
Now I’m a pretty good driver. I’ve never gotten a ticket. But in that moment, I realized that perhaps nothing confronts us with the power of our own modeling like handing the keys of our car to our newly licensed teen. All of a sudden, it matters a great deal if we often exceeded the speed limit, if we swore at another driver, if we texted that time when we knew we shouldn’t have. Our children were watching. We know they may make some bad choices, but it’s awful to think, what if they make those bad choices because they first saw us make them?
Adulthood carries a strong allure for children. After all, adults get to decide how late to stay up. They get to decide what to eat and when. They get to watch shows that kids aren’t allowed to watch. They get to drive and go interesting places. Adults decide how to spend their time and money. It’s a privilege to be an adult.
At least that’s what it often looks like to children. They want to act grown up, so they watch us to see how a grown-up acts. What does a grown-up do when they’re angry? Sad? Frustrated? Worried? Happy? Children learn what adults do by watching and listening to adults.
The following chapters suggest practical ways to teach morality. But all of those tools are based on the premise that we adults are 1) communicating our expectations about what’s right and wrong and 2) modeling those expectations ourselves. Modeling, says Michele Borba, is “one of the oldest and simplest psychology premises: ‘The more you see it, the more likely you’ll become it.'”
We can teach all the lessons in the world, we can preach until we lose our voices, and we can construct a million activities to teach morality, but if we’re not living what we teach, all those lessons will lose their meaning. That’s one reason children leave church when they get old enough to make that decision for themselves. “Our best and brightest are leaving,” moaned one children’s director. Of course, they are. Our best and brightest find the exit first, but lots of others find their way out as well, because they’re not blind or deaf, and they’re certainly not stupid. When the way we act doesn’t match what we’ve taught, they respond the way Jesus did: “You hypocrites!”
So the first issues to look at are personal to us. Who and what do we criticize? How? Who and what do we admire and praise? How? Who and what do we find funny? How do we speak about sermons after church? Who and what do we support verbally or with our time and money? What do we choose to turn a blind eye to? It matters, because we are constantly showing children how adults act.
I’m not saying that we have to be perfect. We won’t be, even if we try, and it’s best not to pretend that we are. Kids need us to do the best we can. When we mess up, they need us to admit it, to try to make things right, and to get back up and try again. That’s part of modeling what a good, moral person does.
The first principle, then, of guiding children toward moral wisdom is one that only we can give: Speak to be echoed and act to be copied.
“Act as if people are watching you, because they are.
The trail you leave behind starts now.”
– Seth Godin
Adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley.
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