Fostering Moral Behavior in Children

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With rising youth violence, increasing peer cruelty, coarsening of language, a declining work ethic, diminished personal and civic responsibility, escalating dishonesty, growing ethical illiteracy, and growing disrespect for parents, teachers, and other legitimate authority figures, one wonders if too little emphasis is placed on morality among the young. According to a number of scholars, the answer is a definitive yes.

Among the most vocal and widely respected of these voices is Harvard professor Robert Coles, author of The Moral Intelligence of Children. Coles claims that at one time society took for granted its responsibility to help children develop a conscience or moral compass. But increasingly, "we notice [conscience] is less and less a force in the mental life of our children."

Coles argues that society has stressed "cognitive competence of a certain kind," such as doing well in math and science. And then, he says, "We emphasized that elusive quality called mental health, psychological expressiveness, knowledge of one's emotional life. What are we going to do with all this awareness and competence? And for what moral purpose? I think that has not been stressed as much in many homes."

Moral intelligence is how we behave. It's moral behavior tested by life and lived out in everyday experience, says Coles. The development of moral intelligence is critical if we are to have a moral society.

How can we foster moral intelligence in our children? Coles believes one way is to tell them stories. In his book, he tells stories from his personal and professional life that examine "good" and "bad" children and how they became that way. He calls this "the power of narrative." Through telling stories, he says, a reader can "fit that story into his or her life."

Coles proposes that children, even infants, have the capacity to learn moral behavior. Adults, too, as they teach their children, continue to hone their moral code. Thus, as parents share stories with their children, everyone's moral intelligence grows.

Why are stories so effective? According to Coles, "Stories encourage the moral imagination to work, and they are concrete and connected to everyday experience. Abstract formulations and risks are in one ear and out the next, and even if we memorize them, they don't have the flesh of the daily life. Stories are based on [real-life] experience."

While stories can foster moral intelligence, they won't have much effect if parents and other adults don't set a good example. According to Coles, "Any lesson offered a child in an abstract manner that isn't backed up by deeds is not going to work very well. We live out what we presumably want taught to our children. And our children are taking constant notice, and they're measuring us not by what we say but what we do."

In what other ways can parents foster moral behavior in their children? Here are ideas that may help.

  • Be a model of the moral behavior you want to encourage. Children learn first and foremost from the example set for them by adults significant in their life. Adolescents and teenagers, especially, are likely to dismiss our pleadings for moral behavior unless our "walk" is consistent with our "talk." We are unlikely to persuade our kids to be honest if they hear us lying to the boss on the phone.
  • Set and enforce standards for moral behavior. A standard is a measure by which we judge our actions. Standards can help young people make decisions about moral behavior long before a difficult situation presents itself. They often address issues like personal responsibility, sexual behavior, drug and alcohol use, honesty, integrity, work, respect for others, and fairness. The standards you set may be based on tradition, culture, religious beliefs or some combination.

    For example, "Be honest in all you say and do" is a standard. "Keep your eyes on your own paper during school exams" is a specific action that meets the standard.

    Standards help youth resist temptation. Studies show that religious commitment, which typically includes standards, tends to reduce drug use and delinquency. Studies also show that enforcement is an important key to encouraging good moral behavior. Children whose parents strictly enforce standards about drugs are much more likely to be drug-free.

  • Use reasoning, not force, to encourage compliance. It's wise to encourage children's voluntary compliance with moral standards and avoid a contest of wills. Parents can achieve this goal by giving reasons and explanations for expected behavior, appealing to a child's pride and desire to be grown up, and explaining the consequences of behavior for themselves and others.

    Adolescents and teenagers, especially, need to understand the "why" of a moral behavior. "Because I said so" doesn't cut it for this age group. In fact, it's counterproductive because it sends the message that some dumb adults made up a bunch of rules to control their kids. Teaching the "why" helps them understand how living by standards is actually freeing because it makes their lives better and improves society overall.

  • When violations occur, use victim-oriented discipline strategies. Just about all young people are bound to violate moral principles on occasion, even if their parents have diligently taught them right from wrong. Part of helping young people internalize moral behavior is allowing them to experience the consequences of their actions, especially for others, and requiring them to make amends to the injured party of their wrongdoing.

    For example, a father was asked by a friend, a self-employed owner of a vending company, to stock some of his snack machines for him while he was away on vacation. The father kept the supplies locked in the family van. Later in the week, the father noticed several candy bar wrappers scattered around the house. He discovered that his son had taken the candy. The father sternly explained to his son that his decision to take the candy bars was the same as taking money from his friend that was needed to feed his family. He then took his son to see the friend (the victim) and required him to confess what he had done, apologize, and pay for the candy. It cost the boy several months' allowance.

    In his book, Coles refers to the "moral loneliness" of children. Children, he argues, need a moral compass founded on a sense of purpose and direction in life, a set of values grounded in moral introspection, and a spiritual life sanctioned by their parents and others in the adult world. As parents and adults, we are poised to help provide these gifts through our moral example.

Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


  1. Coles, R. (1997). The moral intelligence of children: How to raise a moral child. New York: Dutton/Plume.