3 Ways to Help Good Kids Make Tough Choices

Ethical, honest behavior can be taught to children at all ages, author says.


All parents want their children to grow up to be honest, kind people who do the right thing. But teaching ethical behavior can sound like an overwhelming task when parents are dealing with the challenges of everyday behavior. It doesn't have to be. Teaching children ethics really can be part of everyday life, according to Rush Kidder, author of the new book Good Kids, Tough Choices: How Parents Can Help Their Children Do the Right Thing (Jossey-Bass, $16.95). Kidder, a former journalist, is the president and founder of the Institute for Global Ethics in Rockland, Maine, and usually spends his time running ethics seminars for corporations and government agencies. When participants kept saying, "Wow, this is going to be really helpful at home," Kidder realized it was time for an ethics manual for parents. Here's an edited version of our conversation:

You say parents don't want to sound preachy or old-fashioned, but they also don't want to sound naïve. So how exactly do they tackle a subject as big as ethics?

They need a language, rather than authoritarian demands. It's really a question of finding the right balance, doing it in a way that inspires conversation. [Good Parents, Bad Results]

You say children as young as 8 understand the concept of having to make tough decision, when it seems both sides could be right: what you call right vs. right?

Children understand that perfectly. When they've made a promise to a friend never to tell a secret, and all of a sudden the principal is coming to them asking what the child said, those are two rights. It's right to keep your word, and it's right to tell the truth. Helping children sort through that is the purpose of this work. What are the three things that can help parents and kids understand and develop their own moral compasses?

The first is knowing what's right—your core values. All around the world, people have five core values: honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness, and compassion. It's a great list. You find that in every culture at every level. The second is making tough choices: developing ethical decision-making skills.The third is moral courage. If parents can simply find ways into conversations about those three things, it makes a terrific difference.

This doesn't sound like a conversation I can have with a 4-year-old who wants his friend's Legos.

You start with teaching values: Always be honest and fair. It embeds this sense of values deeply. At age 3, kids' default provision is to tell the truth, but by the time they get to age 4, they're moving away from that. If we're not careful, by the time kids reach the age of 8 they become fully skilled lie-tellers. When kids reach middle school, they're challenged by two different conflicting values, especially with peer pressure. They're in a philosophical pickle. They've got to say: "There are gray areas here, and I've got to work it through, or I've got to turn away from my values entirely." In middle school, there's a real focus on right vs. right, and then later the focus becomes moral courage. If the high school coach is selling drugs, do I just say nothing and suck it up, or do I have the courage to say this is wrong, even perhaps at the loss of my own spot on the team?

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How do I start having that conversation with children?

Ethics is a word parents don't need to use. It's much more helpful to go to those five core values. Is this a question of respect? That, the child can get. It's just a matter of applying some common sense and having a conversation that, in the end, kids really like. What was the right thing for Derek Jeter to do the other day? Kids like to really get into that. Ethics is not something I talk about with my adult friends, but I feel a responsibility to teach this to children. What's going on there?

Something transformative happens to people when they become parents. They suddenly say, "Wow, I was going on in a values mush and all of a sudden I've got another responsibility here." A lot of the dilemmas are not the dilemmas that kids have, they're the dilemmas that parents have. You give the real-life example of the mom who told her 4-year-old son to lie about his age when he was too young to use the hot tub at a hotel. I think we've all made ethical slips like that. How could she have dealt with that as a right vs. right decision?

She could have seen it as a choice of honesty (to the hotel's rule) versus loyalty to her son. She could have found scores of arguments for loyalty. But the fact that she was willing to create a specialized, purpose-built lie tells us something about her lack of acquaintance with her own core values. The question becomes: "Should I deprive my son of a few minutes of enjoyment, or actively teach him to lie?" The choice is a no-brainer—at least for those who care about ethics.