What do we mean by a moral/spiritual dimension? This is what common sense has come
to call conscience or morality: the internalized sense of right and wrong, good and bad, just and
unjust. In some situations we talk about ethics, while in other situations we talk about values.
Basically, though, the moral/spiritual dimension has to do with what is good and right and bad
and wrong. In addition, the moral/spiritual dimension has to do with recognizing and respecting
spirituality, our own and that of others. It includes a respect for our physical being, our potentials
and capacities, the being and becoming of others and a reverence for the world about us.
Until about the age of four, children are physical and emotional beings without moral
dimension. Around the age of four, the moral/spiritual dimension begins to develop a real
influence on their lives.
For the preschooler, the moral/spiritual dimension is new and somewhat puzzling. It is
even more complex for the grade schooler, who soon learns that not everyone agrees about right
and wrong, and other moral issues. For the adolescent, moral issues continue to multiply, and
may be more intense and confusing than at any other time of life. The pressure to produce is
high, the opportunities to act in unacceptable ways are many, and self-assurance tends to be
neither continuous nor solid. This places a strong responsibility on parenting adults to continue
moral/spiritual teaching without preaching, pushing, or prohibiting. The adolescent will learn
only through a relationship of trust and acceptance a real sense that parenting adults have faith
that he will do what is right. Let's look at the development of the moral/spiritual dimension and
consider the most important issues for parenting adults.
The process of communicating with an infant about yes and no begins at birth and
continues throughout life. During any period when people are unable to immediately respond to
his needs, the infant experiences discomfort. These times can be thought of as no times. At other
times, people will want him to do things he does not want to do, like when mother or father put
him back in the crib when he wants them to continue holding him. These times can be called yes
times. No times are when a child's desires or behavior are being limited, and yes times are when
other people try to make the child comply with their wishes.
Although yes times and no times begin at birth, they are negligible until the infant is a
year or so old. Until then, he usually gets what he wants. The toddler, however, can have a real
crisis at hand. Let us look at the crisis of yes and no and how it contains the seeds of the child's
morality and spirituality.
The basic moral tenet is 'Do that which is good and refrain from doing that which is
bad.' For the infant, almost everything is acceptable and nothing is forbidden. Very gradually her
world becomes divided into the acceptable and the unacceptable, the expected and the forbidden,
that which is alright and that which is not alright.
Now an interesting thing happens. Through some vaguely understood mechanism,
parental limits and expectations about no time and yes time become part of the child's
functioning and being. Most probably, the parental and child emotions during interaction get
linked with the limits in the child's thinking and feeling.
Let us suppose, for example, that parents expect to give the toddler a hug and kiss before
bed, a positive emotional experience. The toddler comes bounding out of bed one evening and
says, 'I forgot to kiss daddy good night.' Kissing daddy good night, which started out as the
parent's idea, has become something the toddler does herself. Or, the toddler tries putting her
hand into the fish tank and is negatively disciplined for doing so. Both the parental and child
emotions are negative. After some experience having the limit set, we observe toddler one
evening in front of the fish tank, looking first at the water and then at her hand, clearly debating
whether or not to put her hand in the tank. She wants to do so but thinks she should not. Through
these two examples, we see that yes time and no time have been changed to should and should
A slightly different example sees a preschooler playing a board game with father. She
moves her man one space further than she is supposed to, and then says, 'Oops, I am on the
wrong square. I belong back here.' The idea that she should follow the rules of a game (at least
with father) is now coming from within her. Later, this will generalize to adults and children and
finally to a wide variety of life situations. A child's moral sense and value framework begin with
her parents being sure that the child experiences yes time and no time and with helping the child
work through the crisis of yes and no with love and firmness.
Teaching children about stealing and helping them learn not to steal is just like helping
them deal with any other limits. When we see a child take something she should not have taken,
there are two things to do. We set limits by firmly saying no and insisting the child put back what
has been taken. Next, we set up an expectation by firmly concluding '...and do not do that
again!' Remember, children do not learn most things the first time - they don't need to. It will be
quite acceptable if the child gradually learns to accept such limits and to conform to such
expectations. Thus, we initially set the limit in a firm way and gradually increase our response to
the child's behavior over time.
For example, the first time toddler picks up a piece of candy at the store we tell him
firmly to put it back and to never take things from a store. The third or fourth time the behavior
occurs, we will insist, express annoyance, and may negatively discipline. We may have the child
take the candy to the clerk and confess that he has taken it. This action will emphasize the
seriousness of the offense.
Over time, the child will finally come to feel that taking things that do not belong to him,
under certain conditions or in certain situations, is a very bad thing to do. If parents follow
through in a firm way, the child will get to the point where he chastises himself emotionally
when he steals. This is what we mean by guilty conscience.
Conscience develops over time. The formation of these inner controls and self-sanctions
begins with the toddler and continues throughout life. It is not unusual for a child of eight or nine
to steal something on rare occasions. This does not mean the child is going to grow up to be a
thief. It simply means that he has not yet developed enough internal control and self-sanction to
limit his own behavior and to conform to parental expectations. One or two incidents of stealing
by the adolescent are not, in themselves, alarming. Such episodes should be dealt with primarily
in verbal and emotional terms. Let the adolescent know that we are disappointed in him, a little
ashamed; intentionally play on his guilt a little to make him feel bad. If he really does feel guilty,
these feelings will by themselves make it unlikely he will repeat the behavior.
Children lie for the same reasons that adults lie - to avoid negative consequences or to
gain advantage. Lying and dishonesty are fairly complicated concepts which children only begin
to understand around the age of four or five. At a younger age, it will help to think about such
behavior as 'misrepresenting.' Once language has begun to develop, when a toddler is about
three years old, it becomes possible for her to misrepresent or distort what has happened. By that
age she can figure out that we are upset with her because we think she is doing something she
should not do. We are simultaneously amused and frustrated the first time we catch the toddler
with her hand in the candy dish, about to pick up the second piece, the first piece still in her
In reality, children get away with most of their unacceptable behavior. Either we do not
know about it, or do not take the time to negatively respond to it. Fortunately, it is unnecessary
that children always be caught. It is important to appropriately respond negatively to the behavior
most of the times we observe it.
If our discipline is excessive or abusive, children will do almost anything, including lying,
to avoid our wrath. If a child is lying to us with regularity, it may be that we have been somewhat
abusive with him when he misbehaves. The child may be afraid of us. At the other extreme, he
may continue to lie if we always accept what he says, never question his explanations, and act as
if we believe him even when we do not. He will also continue to lie if our disapproval is too
By the time a child is five or six, truthfulness should have become a moral value.
Children gradually come to be truthful even when doing so may get them into trouble. They will
gradually refrain from lying even though the risk of getting caught is extremely low. We may ask
a ten-year-old some evening if he brushed his teeth before bed the night before. We know and he
knows there is no way we can tell whether he is telling the truth. He knows that we will be
annoyed if he tells us that he did not brush his teeth. Nonetheless, he says, 'No, I forgot.' Why
does he tell the truth when, at no risk, it would seem to be to his advantage to lie to us? To
understand this, we need to look at how lying becomes controlled by conscience.
If a toddler finds that misrepresenting what has happened helps her avoid a negative
reaction from us, she will try it again. As we become aware that she is misrepresenting things, we
react with annoyance and disapproval. The child comes to understand that we expect her to
accurately tell us what is going on. This thinking part is combined with our negative emotions
and her unpleasant emotions, to become a part of the child's emotional/thinking self.
Gradually, then, the child learns that we have a special thing about telling what really
happened and not distorting things. In fact, she finds that we get even more upset when she
misrepresents things and we find out about it than we would have gotten had she simply told us
how things were to begin with. She picks up on our reaction through our behavior and because
we have told her so.
As she learns to understand the notion of lying, she also develops feelings about lying.
These feelings are self-disciplining. Finally, we do not have to negatively discipline at all. It is
enough for the child to know that we know she is lying or may find out. Although the experience
is milder, she feels chastised as if we had actually disciplined her. This self-discipline is called a
guilty conscience. Eventually, with continuing effort both on our part and on the child's part,
conscience comes to be a significant influence on much of the child's life, including lying.
It is important to let children know that being honest is, by itself, very desirable. As we let
the child know that we see him as honest and truthful. This self-image will stand as a strong
deterrent to dishonesty.
Will there come a day when the child never lies again? Probably not. He will on some
occasions lie before thinking about it. At other times, the perceived risk in telling the truth will
be so high that the child may choose to lie. By the age of nine or ten, it should be quite sufficient
to let him know that we know. This will make him feel a little guilty, and thus reduce the
likelihood of his lying in the future.
Never tell a child that you are going to believe her unless you are really going to do so.
Never tell a child that you do believe her unless you really do. It is reasonable to say to a child,
'You have lied to me so much that I don't know whether to believe you or not.' Especially with
an adolescent, it is quite reasonable to check up on her if you think that she has lied to you. If you
find the child (especially a grade schooler or preschooler) gets very upset when confronted about
her behavior or the possibility that she is lying, your first suspicion should be that the child has
become afraid of you. Tone down discipline and negative reactions; give more affection and
positive reactions and encouragement. It may be time to stop saying, 'I am absolutely not going
to put up with your lying to me one more time' and to start saying, 'It will sure be nice when you
and I get to where you feel like you can tell me the truth and don't have to lie to me anymore.'
Our children are watching us all the time and are becoming more like us every day. Of
course, we can set a good example and yet be quite ineffective if we do not deal with the child
and his behavior in a responsible way. It is equally true, though, that we can deal with the child
and his behavior in a reasonable and appropriate way, yet if we do not set a good example, our
good parenting will be lost.
What does it mean to be a good role model? How do we do it? For the most part, we live
those values, attitudes, and beliefs we want to see in our children. If we want our children to be
trustworthy and to refrain from stealing, it is important for them to see us as trustworthy. Now,
what is the effect on the child when we borrow something from a neighbor and do not return it?
Perhaps it would be a good exercise for you to go through your house and make a list of
everything you have which does not legitimately belong to you. Be sure to include things you
have brought home from work, have borrowed from friends and family members, things which
really belong to the children but have been appropriated by you, and everything else which you
are keeping or using but to which you do not have a clear right. It is an unusual household that
does not contain a few such objects. Do you always make an effort to correct the situation when
you have been given too much change, when you have been charged less than you should have
been charged, when you have been given more than you have paid for, or when you receive
things that you have not ordered?
Do you always ask your children's permission before using things that belong to them,
before getting into their things, before using their money to pay the paper boy, before eating their
Halloween candy, before giving away toys or clothes they have outgrown, or before giving one
child permission to use clothing or school supplies of another child? If you do not get the
children's permission before doing these things, you are stealing. It is very easy to use parental
power and authority to steal from children, but it also sets a very bad example.
We want our children to be truthful. Are we honest, even in those situations where
truthfulness brings negative consequences? We are driving a long distance and one of the
children asks how soon we are going to stop to eat. We say, 'Just settle down. We are going to
stop in just a little bit.' Two hours later we are still driving. Did we lie to the child? Yes, we
surely did. A friend stops us and asks us if we will be at the next club meeting. 'Yes, I plan to be
there.' When it comes time for the meeting, we are too tired, or would rather go someplace else,
or perhaps we never really intended to go. The list of transgressions could go on and on. It may
be a good exercise to keep a record for one week, giving yourself one point every time you lie, do
not do what you say you will do, misrepresent what has happened, or do anything dishonest. Do
not be surprised if your score is high.
We want our children to be considerate of other people. One way to achieve this is to talk
with our children and let them know we disapprove when they make fun of other children. Let
them know we do not approve of teasing children with physical handicaps, or who are mentally
retarded, who have speech defects or accents different from ours, who are economically better off
or less well off than we, who have beliefs or customs different from ours. We teach the golden
rule, but our high principles falter a little when we gossip, or do not try to understand another
person's thinking or feelings, when we stereotype people, or in any way act as if our way of life is
the only right way. We become angry with our children or make fun of them when they are
awkward or have difficulty doing something. We are nice to people when they are around but
talk negatively about them when they are not. We disapprove of our children's friends and
associates without making any effort to get to know them. We become very self-righteous when
other people have financial difficulties, family problems, get fired, or have other problems. Our
children gradually will come to deal with other people in the same way we do.
LEARNING ABOUT RELIGION:
Religion is a response to the imponderable and unanswerable. Whether we believe or not,
children still have spiritual questions and need help with them. As we help children learn about
religion, we will necessarily deal with religious beliefs, religious customs, and religious rituals.
Let us look at these issues separately.
Children learn about religious beliefs through identification and association with us and
with other people. These religious beliefs and values will become part of a child's thinking as
well as part of his moral sense. They will be incorporated into his conscience.
We want children to learn about the customs of our religion, such as praying, church
attendance, relating to members of the clergy or other specific individuals within the church,
when and how to express religious ideas and beliefs, and appropriate dress and behavior in
religiously significant situations. Each religious group has its own customs. Children need to
learn these customs by being taught about them. Most importantly, they need to spend time with
people who believe in the customs and observe them.
Children also need to learn about religious rituals - church services, funerals, marriage
ceremonies, membership rituals, ceremonies of coming of age, and so on. All religions have such
prescribed rituals about which children need to learn. They need to learn appropriate dress,
appropriate behavior, the sequence in which things happen, the significance of specific actions or
The earlier a child is exposed to the influence of religious beliefs, customs, and rituals,
the more likely it is that he will develop a continuing religious orientation. For infant and toddler,
such involvement and participation will be spontaneous and relatively unquestioned. Very young
children will not recognize even the possibility of alternative beliefs, customs, and rituals. To the
extent that the parents both hold a religious orientation and are involved and participate in rituals,
the child's involvement and participation will be complete.
If our religion is important to us and if we believe that a similar orientation is necessary
for our children, we should insist they be exposed to religious education, conform with religious
custom, and participate in religious rituals. Should children (including adolescents) be made to
go to church? Yes, if we think that church attendance is a mandatory part of life. Should children
be forbidden to participate in activities thought to be immoral? Yes, if we think they are immoral
or indecent. We should encourage our children to do what is right and not to do what is wrong.
We should demand their cooperation consistent with our own beliefs and values. What is right
and what is wrong? Within very broad limits, parents decide for their children.
Of course, children can be abused or neglected under the guise of religion. For example, a
father literally beat his eleven-year-old son on a daily basis to (so the father said) let the child
experience the wrath of God and so that the child would honor his father. A three-year-old was
made to 'sit in prayer' for almost all waking hours during a five-day period so that he would
learn that stealing is sinful and brings great punishment. Such abuse and neglect of children
under the umbrella of religion is quite intolerable and inexcusable.
LEARNED VALUES VERSUS EXPERIENCED VALUES:
We can talk and talk, but some things children just have to learn on their own. We have
talked with our seven-year-old about how much it hurts to be teased and have encouraged her not
to get involved in such behavior. Still, she tells us about a child at school who was being teased
by the other children because of his difficulty with school work and not getting very good grades.
Our seven-year-old has already learned a little bit about the give and take of teasing and making
fun, but has had no experience with being teased as a result of having difficulty with particular
tasks or activities or as a result of not performing very well. She somewhat understands why we
disapprove of the children teasing the boy, but does not have much empathy for him and for his
situation. Her turn comes one day, though. She is the last one in her group to master 'walking the
dog' on her skateboard. 'Everyone, everyone in the whole wide world can walk the dog but me,'
she sobs. With the cruelty only seven-year- olds and other young children can muster, her friends
are merciless in their teasing. 'Even a hog can walk the dog - dummy, dummy, dumber than a
hog!!' Her experience gives new and personal meaning to the value of refraining from teasing.
She now can feel how much it hurts.
The development of values through experience begins with the infant. Very quickly, the
infant experiences the fact that being hungry is less good than not being hungry. Similarly, the
infant learns that it is better to be warm than cold, better to be free from pain than in pain, better
to have relationships with people than to be ignored, better to do than to be bored. Primary values
begin to develop through the experiences of infancy.
Values begin to compound and expand for the toddler. The toddler is taught to restrain
aggressive or destructive impulses, told that houses should be kept neat, made to take baths and
keep clean, encouraged to eat a variety of foods, and taught many other values. Much of the
toddler's value development comes through experience -- spontaneous or contrived by parenting
adults. For example, the toddler will learn the value of taking care of his things after a few of
them are broken, damaged, or lost as a result of his carelessness. When he has to deal with not
having the toy or other object, has to deal with its not working or functioning properly, or has to
deal with parental reactions to the object being broken or lost, his experience begins to tell him
that it is a good idea to take better care of his things.
At other times, parenting adults intentionally contrive situations in which the toddler will
'have to' have experiences related to the development of specific values. For instance, some
parents noticed that their toddler seemed to believe that she could do everything herself and
needed no help from anyone. She needed to learn the value of accepting help and advice from
others, or at least considering the advice of others. It was getting to the point where she would
become very upset whenever anyone tried to help her with something. Finally, they decided to
pick a few situations in which they would simply offer to help or offer advice but totally refrain
from further interference if the child refused the advice. When she then received a new toy that
needed to be assembled, mother offered to help. When the toddler became annoyed, mother said,
'Fine, do it yourself.' When after a while the toddler could not put the toy together, she came to
Mother asking for help. Mother said, 'No, I will not help now. Now you will have to do it
A preschooler consistently refused to play cooperatively with neighborhood children. At
first, his mother tried to intervene when his behavior got too far out of hand or when the other
children did not want to play with him. She decided, though, that the value of social cooperation
would need to be learned through experience by the preschooler. At that point, she simply stayed
out of it. After a while the preschooler got the message that other children did not want to play
with him when he was too rough, or always had to be first, or pouted or had temper tantrums if
things did not go his way, or when he insisted that other children play his games and never their
games. Also, the other children learned a value of their own through this experience. They
learned that being cooperative, letting other people have their way, and generally capitulating to
the will of others all have their limits.
Through life experience, the grade schooler learns about such values as completing tasks
on time, doing jobs in an orderly way, being polite, being willing to help and to ask for help,
taking care of one's things and respecting the property of others, being honest and reliable. An
eleven-year-old became very nasty and unpleasant with one of her friends, joining in with the
other children who were teasing the friend. The friend had a party and did not invite our
eleven-year-old. What value did the experience teach? If we are not reasonably nice to other
people, they are not very likely to be nice back.
For an adolescent, experience can be more harsh and exciting, and values more intense
and entrenched. The adolescent may become increasingly irresponsible, despite parental pleading
and counseling. Parents frequently protect their adolescent from the negative consequences of his
actions, by talking school officials out of taking negative measures, by 'buying' his way out of
trouble. Yes, this occasionally works. More often, however, the adolescent's behavior only
continues, but in a new place or under new circumstances. What should parents do?
The first time something really bad happens, parents should talk with the adolescent, let
her know what the consequences might have been, try to be sure that the negative consequences
are not too extreme, and be sure she experiences some negative discipline. If the problem
persists, however, parents should back off and let the consequences come as they may. To further
protect the child will only postpone the inevitable. In fact, such adolescents may get into worse
difficulties. Continuing to protect the child and to teach values will not help.
Some values can only be learned through experience, while other values are reinforced
and solidified through experience. It is tempting to protect children or to shelter them from things
that are unpleasant or uncomfortable for them. The difficulty is that some values cannot be
learned if parents are overprotective. Children need to get hurt, to have bad experiences, and
unpleasant things happen, and to experience the negative consequences of their behavior. To be
too protective postpones this necessary learning process.
Some children are strong-willed and self-determined, qualities that will serve them well.
At the same time, very strong-willed, self-determined children have their problems. They seem to
have to learn everything the hard way. They frequently disregard our advice and deal with the
world on their own terms. They may get hurt. We only need become concerned if they do not
seem to learn from their experiences. If this is so, we should suspect a serious problem and seek
professional advice. Even when our child is more strong willed and self-determined than others,
we should avoid labeling the child in this way as an excuse or reason for misbehavior. Just as he
seems to need to try everything once, he also has a higher than usual need for negative discipline.
Frequently, it is our responsibility to be sure that the negative consequences or unpleasant effects
do occur, whether spontaneously in the child's world or imposed on the child by us.
CUSTOMARY VALUES VERSUS MORAL VALUES:
Many values hold the weight of morality. We teach children to refrain from a lot of things
because they are morally wrong: stealing, rape and murder, serious neglect and abuse of children,
blatant dishonesty, and a few other things that almost everyone would agree are morally wrong.
There is also a completely separate group of values that have nothing to do with morality.
For example, we may value orderliness over disorderliness. There is probably nothing morally
wrong with disorderliness. We also tend to value having money more highly than not having
money although there is nothing morally bad about not having money or morally better about
having money. Valuing of money is, thus, merely a matter of custom or tradition.
Most of our work with children in the area of values has to do with customary or
traditional values. Only a small portion of our effort relates to moral values. For example, the
infant comes into a world where emphasis is placed on cleanliness. Most mothers and fathers
keep their infant cleaner than is necessary for health. There is no reason to change the infant's
gown each time she gets a little spill on it. Why do most parents do it, then? Because anything
less than completely clean is, to some extent, undesirable. We encourage children to comb their
hair to keep it well-groomed. Higher value is placed on combed hair than uncombed. A child
says, 'Why do I have to comb my hair?' This is a very good question. The child has to comb her
hair because custom and tradition dictate it. The grade schooler and adolescent ask, 'Why do we
have to eat our dinner at the table instead of in front of the TV?' Another good question. Custom
says so. Why can't boys wear dresses? Why is it better to put clothes on hangers than to toss them
on the floor? What is wrong with wearing sloppy clothes to school? As we can see, many of the
values we want our children to accept have nothing to do with morality, but are custom or
Children will raise questions with almost all values we introduce them to. They will want
to know why. They will want to know by what authority. They will want to know of what benefit
the value will be to them.
Let us focus on the authority question. With moral issues, our appeal is to God, to social
good, or to universal truth - to a power beyond us. It is equally legitimate to appeal to custom or
tradition. An adolescent says 'Do I have to get dressed up to go to the wedding just because
everyone else does?' 'Yes, you have to get dressed up just because everyone else is going to do
so.' Insisting that children conform to custom and tradition is a necessary parental function. The
socialization of children needs to be assured.
MEMORIZED VALUES VERSUS SELF-COMPUTED VALUES:
We expect quite a lot from children. It is not enough that they hold the values we see as
good; they must also be able to recognize every situation in which the values apply and to act
consistent with those values. They need to convert their memorized values into behavior and
actions, to compute a behavior response to a situation consistent with their values.
Children of all ages continually go through the process of computing appropriate and
effective behavior to go along with their values. Occasionally, we become upset because their
behavior is inconsistent with their values. We say, 'Why did you do that? You know better than
that.' They say, 'I know I should not have done it, but I did not know what else to do at the
time.' Frequently, parents will say to the child, 'But you should have known what to do.' This is,
of course, not necessarily true. The child would only know what to do if he or she had been
exposed to a similar situation in the past and had computed an appropriate or effective response.
It may be that this is the first time they have been confronted by this particular situation.
Yes, children do have appropriate values, but may need some time and experience to
figure out what to do in a particular situation. When a child says he does not know what to do,
we should realize that we are dealing with a difficulty in computing the appropriate behavior.
With a novel situation in particular, he probably cannot figure out a better way of dealing with it.
We should respond to this as a learning opportunity and try to help him think of behavior or
responses which might have worked out better. The next time this type of situation comes up he
will have some experience that will increase the likelihood of a more appropriate response.
Perhaps our rule should be that children be allowed to do everything wrong at least once.
All learning for children relates directly to being able to compute behavior and actions in
specific situations or under unusual circumstances. The main thing we can help children do is
slow down, think things through, and plan ahead. In a value- significant situation, when children
are unsure what to do or how to act, the first step is for them to calm down. Once they have
slowed down, they can think things through. As part of this process, they should look to the
future to see how various actions might work out. They learn to mentally rehearse various actions
and, in their minds, they learn to anticipate outcomes. Once they are able to do that, they are in a
much better position to decide what behavior is and is not consistent with their values. For
example, a grade schooler knows that she has one more arithmetic problem to do. She can
mentally rehearse various alternatives. One alternative would be to go to recess and then get her
work done as soon as she returns. As she thinks about that, she can decide whether or not that is
consistent with her values. A boy scout can quickly mentally rehearse the various options as a
response to his sense of responsibility for a lost flashlight. There may not be a clear-cut right way
to deal with the problem. Nonetheless, he can briefly look at the options that occur to him and
see how they might turn out. Based on that mental rehearsal, he can choose how he will deal with
it. At a minimum, he can feel comfortable knowing that he really did stop to consider several
options and chose the one he thought best, even if the flashlight never shows up.
If we are able to say that we really thought about our options carefully, and chose the one
we thought best, we know we have remained faithful to our values. This is, of course, the real
issue with children. Be not too harsh nor too critical when their actions are inconsistent with their
values, if they really have made an effort to think things through and have tried to act consistently
with their values. It is unreasonable, nay abusive, to expect a child always to do what is right and
RESOLVING VALUE-CONFLICTED SITUATIONS:
In many value situations, the choice is not clear-cut but is between more and less wrong,
more and less good, more and less acceptable, and so on. For example, a grade schooler stands at
the screen door on a rainy summer day watching the newspaper get wet and thinking that he
should get it out of the rain. At the same time, he remembers that mother told him not to go
outside in the rain today. What to do? If he does what is right (stays in) he also does what is
wrong (lets the paper get wet). Alternatively, if he does what is right (gets the paper), he does
what is wrong (goes outside). Yes, he could tell Mother that the paper is outside getting wet, thus
letting her deal with the problem. He is not yet at a point where he can compute that option.
Anyway, mother is not very happy with him today and she might just get more upset with him if
he bothers her. This grade schooler is experiencing another real value conflict. Another grade
schooler is peacefully watching TV. Mother calls from the kitchen for the grade schooler to come
help her. Almost simultaneously, father calls for the grade schooler to come help him. She knows
she should respond to her parents and help when they ask her to do so. What to do? She is
confronted with two equally right alternatives.
Children need to learn to make judgments about what kinds of things are more right than
others, what kinds of things are more unacceptable than others. Our child watching the paper
being rained on needs to learn to make the judgment that mother's rule about not going out today
had not taken into consideration the particular situation. He needs to learn that the specific
situation involving the paper getting wet is an exception to mother's rule. Our TV watcher being
summoned by both parents simultaneously needs to make a judgment. Perhaps she would
respond first to the parent closest to her by saying, 'Dad (or Mom) wants me to do something for
him (her). I will see what he (she) wants and will be right back.'
An adolescent had planned to finish a 4H project the same evening her history teacher
assigned a special project. What to do? Finish the 4H project on time or finish the history project
on time? Her solution to the dilemma showed real ingenuity in dealing with value conflict. She
called her teacher and explained the problem. Her history teacher gave her a one-day extension
on the history assignment. Clearly, this adolescent has learned that people will occasionally
change rules for legitimate reasons. She probably learned this from presenting such problems to
her parents from time to time and finding that they were usually willing to compromise a little.
How can we, as parents, help children learn how to deal with value conflicts. We help in
several ways. We encourage children to make choices and act on their evaluations. We do this
knowing they will sometimes be right and sometimes wrong, but knowing equally well that
children need the freedom to make wrong choices from time to time. Part of a child's learning to
handle value conflicts is going through the sometimes painful process of making a wrong choice
and learning, through experience that the choice was wrong. For example, a grade schooler and a
friend, Cindy, are playing in the front yard. Another child comes along and asks the grade
schooler to go for a bike ride. Grade schooler and her friend start to get their bikes. The other
child tells the grade schooler, 'I want you to go but I do not want Cindy to go.' Grade schooler
really wants to go bike riding and goes ahead. Later, she finds out that she has really hurt Cindy's
feelings and has somewhat damaged her relationship with Cindy. Based on this incident, the
grade schooler learns a lot about values and friendships. Yes, children do learn quite a lot about
values through making wrong choices.
Next, we help children learn to deal with value conflicts by helping them develop criteria
for making choices. Generally, teach that it is better to choose in the interests of others than in
terms of our own self-interest.
Another principle for choosing in value conflict situations is to prevent bad or undesirable
things before doing good. For example, an adolescent is a hospital volunteer and is scheduled to
work this evening. One of his friends calls on the telephone frantically asking for help, telling the
adolescent that he has had a blowup with his parents and is going to run away from home. Does
the adolescent go to his friend or to the hospital? Following the principle of preventing
something bad in preference to doing good, he goes to his friend and lets the people at the
hospital do without his services this evening. As with any rule, there are exceptions though.
Suppose instead of running away from home, his friend was having difficulty with his homework
and wanted the adolescent to help. The adolescent then has the choice of going to the hospital or
helping to prevent his friend's receiving a bad grade. In that situation, going to the hospital is
probably the best choice.
We have talked at length about values and helping children develop values. We have also
talked about the need for children to learn about value conflicts and computing appropriate
behavior consistent with their values. We have seen that even our most traditional values
(including moral values) have their limits and exceptions. Understanding this complexity should
help us to be more patient with our children as they go through the difficult process of learning to
set priorities, make value choices, and resolve dilemmas.