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News & Views - July, 2001 Issue #83

Raising Moral Kids

By Elisa Medhus, MD
Author of Raising Children Who Think for Themselves

[Dr. Medus, mother of five children aged 16, 14, 10, 7 and 5, built and operated a successful private medical practice in Houston, Texas for 13 years. In 1992 she conceptualized and developed a successful software program for parents called “ReadySetGrow!” that was featured on “Good Morning America.” Her book, Raising Children Who Think for Themselves, draws on hundreds of interviews with parents, kids, and teachers, and “explodes the myth that parents are powerless to shape their children.”]

Deep down, we worry whether our children will grow to become adults with a high sense of integrity or become one of the dregs of society who think morals are a type of mushroom. Can we beat them into being good? Can we banish them to timeout until they’ve agreed to be virtuous? Can we shame, humiliate or scare them into being moral? Of course not. But we can tackle what lies at the very root of burgeoning morality in our children—self-direction. In other words, we can raise our kids to think for themselves—to use internal dialogue to make choices objectively because they are right rather than relying on guidance from external influences like their peers or rap song lyrics to make choices that will best win them outside approval.

Since self-directed children are free to make choices for the right reasons—reasons that have nothing to do with the others’ expectations, evaluations, opinions or approval—their choices are more inclined to be ones that serve their own self-interest rather than the interest of others. Sound like I’m asking you to raise a bunch of selfish little brats, doesn’t it? But morally speaking, it’s always in the best interest of the self-directed individual to do the right thing. For example, suppose Kristina sees a group of “popular” girls picking on her best friend’s questionable choice in fashions. Does she stand up for her friend and risk being ridiculed or shunned by the “in crowd”? Or does she slink away, hoping nobody notices? Worse yet, does she join in on the peer bashing? If she’s self-directed, she will make the choice that honors her moral principles: she will choose to come to her friend’s rescue. Her sense of reason tells her that not doing so would make her feel like a traitor. She also realizes that betraying her friend could possibly destroy their friendship—a consequence she’s unlikely to find acceptable. Since she has such a strong sense of self and high self-esteem, she doesn’t really need the approval of the popular girls to feel good about herself, anyway. So the decision is easy. Making rational choices that agree with moral principles and values account for the high level of self-control, self-discipline and integrity in self-directed children.

When children are old enough, we can explain the difference between selfish and self-righteous or greedy. Teaching them to follow the motto, “if it feels wrong inside, it’s good for no one” can help them keep their motives sincere and pure. We can help them understand this distinction better by talking about the “good selfish” acts we engage in, what motivates us to do them, how these acts do not harm others, and how the benefits to ourselves spread to those around us. We can also help them analyze the motives behind their own acts towards others. Do these motives allow them to keep their morals intact? Are their actions truly good for them in the long run? Do their actions help, rather than harm others? Could any ulterior motives be involved that make their acts less angelic than they appear?

It’s also important that we try our best to obey the same rules we expect our children to obey, because not doing so confuses them about the meaningfulness of those rules. This confusion then motivates them to engage in externally directed thought patterns like, “Gosh, dad curses like a rapper. How come I can’t even say words like ‘idiot’ and ‘stupid’? It’s not fair. Those are useful words! Hey, I do have a younger brother to deal with, here!” Here’s another example: “Boy, I can’t believe mom told Mrs. Bevins that she can’t bake brownies for the bake sale at school, because she’s sick with the flu! She’s all dressed up to play tennis with Aunt Pauline! Maybe when she tells us we shouldn’t lie, she means little white lies are okay. Does telling my teacher that Fido peed on my book report count as a white lie? I bet it does.”

In both these examples, the children used external factors to arrive at a decision that is morally wrong. “If it’s okay for my folks to bend the rules sometimes, it’s okay for me to do it, too.” More importantly, they used their parents’ rule infraction to justify wrong choices. That just adds another line to the web of self- deception they’re weaving.

Now, let’s look at an example of modeling that creates self-directed thinking: “Mom says she wants us to use our words instead of hitting each other. She’s never laid a hand on us, so I know she really believes in that rule. Hey, I don’t like being hit, so why should my little sister? I’m going to talk to Annika about how I feel when she steals my Barbie clothes—instead of pummeling her.” Here, through a completely self-directed internal dialogue she uses her mom’s consistency to help her examine the significance of a rule. She decides to obey that rule, because her behavior is morally wrong, not because she’s told to.

There are other parenting strategies that encourage self-direction in children including the family environment we create, the discipline techniques we use, how we communicate with them, whether we empathy train them, whether we help them develop defeat recovery skills, whether we encourage them to develop and use their own natural intuition, and whether we help them develop healthy internal dialogue. These are all described in great detail in Raising Children Who Think for Themselves. Once their internal dialogue skills and sense of self become strong, our children will no longer be vulnerable to those tactics that make a bad choice seem good—tactics responsible for the relative morality that’s sadly commonplace today. Some of these morality warpers we can kiss goodbye through self-direction, include self-deceit, excuses, rationalizations, blame shifting, and justifications. Without these, our children will be better equipped to resist acting upon their temptations and emotional impulses. With these choice- distorting tools no longer a threat to their sound judgement, they can do the right thing for the right reason, which is what morality is all about.

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