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Fostering Moral Behavior in Children

Latter-Day Saints Perspective

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.

With violence, cruelty, sin, and selfishness, many believe that moral values are becoming increasingly less prevalent in our society. According to President Gordon B. Hinckley,

"The virus which has infected them [youth] comes of leaderless families, leaderless schools, leaderless communities. It comes from an attitude that says, 'We will not teach moral values. We will leave the determination of such to the individual'... Educators in all too many cases have adopted an attitude of moral neutrality".4

While individual choice is part of our agency, this does not imply that parents should step back and abandon teaching their children moral behavior. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states, "Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live" (¶ 6). Parents have a unique position in that they influence the moral behavior of their children first and foremost to everyone else. While morals can be taught at school and at church, children learn first from the home.

"I have heard a few parents state that they don't want to impose the gospel on their children but want them to make up their own minds about what they will believe and follow. They think that in this way they are allowing children to exercise their agency. What they forget is that the intelligent use of agency requires knowledge of the truth, of things as they really are (see D&C 93:24). Without that, young people can hardly be expected to understand and evaluate the alternatives that come before them. Parents should consider how the adversary approaches their children. He and his followers are not promoting objectivity but are vigorous, multimedia advocates of sin and selfishness".1

For children to make decisions based on what is right and wrong, they need to know their choices. If they are not taught at home good moral values but they are exposed to the attacks of the adversary at school, it will be harder for them to know what is right. We can help children to know what is right by teaching them correct moral behavior in the home.

How can we teach children moral behavior?

  • Teach them the doctrines of the gospel. "True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior".6 Instead of simply focusing on the behavior of children, we can teach them the correct principles to follow. When we teach them charity, for example, we are in essence also teaching them how to treat those around them. The behavior will have more meaning to them if they learn the principle first.
  • Be an example. Children watch those around them, and they are very aware when parents' behaviors are inconsistent with what they say. If you want your children to be honest, you should be honest with them. They need to see you doing what you want them to learn. When they see that you not only tell them to act morally but act correctly yourself, you can motivate them to also choose right from wrong.2,3
  • Hold them accountable for incorrect behavior. This does not imply harsh punishment for every misdeed, but you can teach them that there are consequences when they do something they shouldn't. Elder D. Todd Christofferson shares this example from his youth:

"I can share with you a simple example from my own life of what parents can do. When I was about five or six years old, I lived across the street from a small grocery store. One day two other boys invited me to go with them to the store. As we stood coveting the candy for sale there, the older boy grabbed a candy bar and slipped it into his pocket. He urged the other boy and me to do the same, and after some hesitation we did. Then we quickly left the store and ran off in separate directions. I found a hiding place at home and tore off the candy wrapper. My mother discovered me with the chocolate evidence smeared on my face and escorted me back to the grocery store. As we crossed the street, I was sure I was facing life imprisonment. With sobs and tears, I apologized to the owner and paid him for the candy bar with a dime that my mother had loaned me (which I had to earn later). My mother's love and discipline put an abrupt and early end to my life of crime".1

For many children, teaching them that there is a consequence for behaving badly is more motivational than a scolding. This is not teaching them to fear punishment necessarily, but that their actions have an effect on others.

  • Participate frequently in Family Home Evening, Family Scripture Study, and Family Prayer. All of these are opportunities for parents to teach the messages of the gospel, including principles such as integrity, hope, virtue, agency, respect, and other important doctrines that will influence their moral behavior. President James E. Faust remarked,

"I wonder if having casual and infrequent family home evening will be enough in the future to fortify our children with sufficient moral strength. In the future, infrequent family scripture study may be inadequate to arm our children with the virtue necessary to withstand the moral decay of the environment in which they will live.2

Whatever your family can do will bless your family and your children in learning moral behavior; if you feel that your family needs more strength to withstand the temptations of the world we live in, prayer, scripture study, and FHE can be assets to strengthen the moral character of your family.

Not only knowing how to foster moral behavior but when to teach your children is important. Terrance Olson states that the time to teach your children about moral behaviors is before they meet those temptations. One example is dating; if you don't want your children to date before they turn sixteen, this is something that you should already have discussed before they have reached that age. That way, when the opportunity arises, they already know the repercussions of their potential behaviors. Brother Olson gives us this guide for knowing when to talk to your children:

"Test yourself to see how well you as a parent are preparing your children to meet life. Imagine that your children are five years older than they are now. If you have an eight-year-old boy, he is now thirteen. Your ten-year-old girl is fifteen. What are you teaching them right now which they will need to know at thirteen and fifteen? In five years your boy will be entering junior high. What will he need to learn between now and then to help him experience success in junior high? He will have been a deacon for a year. What does he know about the priesthood now, at age eight that would lead him to approach his ordination reverently? What does your ten-year-old girl need to understand now about dating, about life's purposes that will help her prepare to wait until sixteen for dating experiences?"5

By thinking now about what you want your children to know in the future, you can prepare them for potential hazards by teaching them in advance about moral behavior. Fostering moral behavior should not be a daunting task; many parents are doing it already. By being aware of teaching moral behavior, we can use available opportunities to maximize that instruction.

Written by Kaitlin M. Miller, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


  1. Christofferson, D. T. (2009, November). Moral discipline. Ensign, 105-108.
  2. Faust, J. E. (2005, October). A thousand threads of love. Ensign, 2-7.
  3. Faust, J. E. (1987, May). Will I be happy? Ensign, 80.
  4. Hinckley, G. B. (1992, May). A chosen generation. Ensign, 69.
  5. Olson, T. D. (1981, March). Teaching morality to your children. Ensign, 10.
  6. Packer, B. K. (1986, November). Little children. Ensign, 16.