Not long ago I heard an interview on the radio show, Humankind, about what parents can do to help children develop a moral core. The host interviewed Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. What is a moral core? Weissbourd believes that a moral core involves being able to take another’s point of view, being able to value that point of view, and being able to manage difficult feelings. He believes that these and related qualities are more important to long term happiness that the much touted self-esteem. In fact, these qualities are the basis of caring, and compassionate relationships and life choices which lead to self esteem and real academic achievement.

According to Weissbourd, we often place a higher value on self esteem than morality, to our children’s detriment. I think he means that we work to make children feel good about themselves more than we ask them to treat others politely and kindly. Two examples he gave were asking that your child address wait staff politely and advising your child to reach out to the friendless child on the playground. Children who are not inconvenienced by needing to look out for others can become self-centered young adults.

Parents realize that their children know right from wrong in most situations by the time they are in first or second grade. Doing the right thing requires qualities that come with instruction, practice and development. As a child develops and with parents careful attention, knowing the right thing becomes a part of the young person’s character. Once it is part of character, it is difficult not to act morally because it causes personal discomfort.

Often I meet with parents of young children who are worried that the self-centered and impatient child they see at four will still act that way at fourteen. I reassure them that child development will help them out. Development is only the prerequisite for moral reasoning and actions. Parents and teachers can and do begin to teach moral behavior in preschool. They ask children to talk to another child whom they just hurt. They ask the child to apologize. We teach little ones to take turns, and they quickly and fiercely take on the cause of fairness.

So, if young children know right from wrong, why do they have trouble acting with integrity? One big reason is the need to control strong negative feelings. A child might know it is wrong to throw a toy at a parent, but when she is very angry, or ashamed, she might act impulsively. In time parents can help a child to learn to manage those feelings and to act with more self control.

Some situations are complicated and require moral reasoning in order to sort out what the right behavior would be. Children and adults are often in such dilemmas. Sometimes two values are in conflict. For instance, a teacher asks a child who broke a dish, and the child knows her friend broke it. The child knows she should be honest, but she does not want to get her friend in trouble. Honesty and loyalty, two good values, are in conflict. Or a child might be torn between loyalties to two friends who are in conflict. Moral reasoning, or the skill to sort out what is right to do in a complicated situation, comes with age and practice.

Another aspect of moral development is empathy. In order to have empathy a person needs to be able to take the perspective of another person. More than that she needs to be able to value that other point of view and feel the feelings associated with it. For instance, if a child sees another child being bullied, if he can feel a little of humiliation that the victim feels, he is more likely to feel impelled to speak up against the bully.

As parents our behavior is always on view to our children. That does not mean that we always have to act perfectly around our children. No one can do that. It is helpful to children if their parents and own up to their mistakes and apologize. If you realize that you overreacted about a broken dish, you can go back to your child and acknowledge that. When parents take responsibility for their behavior, they teach their children to do the same. We can model what it means to act according to our values. Seeing parents get involved in community affairs, help out an ailing neighbor, shovel an elderly neighbor’s driveway, or volunteer at school — all of these behaviors teach children what it is to act morally and to build good relationships in a community.

One problem that Weissbourd speaks of in raising teens is the excessive pressure to achieve for the sake of achievement. I see this in the affluent suburbs in which I work. There is intense pressure on teens and parents to get into a top notch college. For some teens everything they do in high school is done so that it will look good on a college application. Working very hard only to do well and not out of passion for a subject, can lead to alienation and depression. Even the A’s that the intense student earns do not bring heightened self esteem. I agree with Weissbourd that self esteem comes from knowing how to form and maintain good relationships with friends and family and from achieving because one is interested and doing good work is part of acting with integrity.

These are just a few thoughts about moral development. For more information about Weissbourd’s thinking and research on this topic, look for his book, The Parents We Mean to Be. Two other good books about raising children with good values are The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and the Blessing of a B Minus, both written by psychologist, Wendy Mogel. Her writing is based in Jewish teachings, but as a non-Jew, I found her thoughts valuable as did a Catholic colleague. I would like to hear from others how you have tried to instill good values in your children. Contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

Author's Bio: 

Parent Coach and Licensed Psychologist, Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. ( educates parents of children with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and anxiety about their children’s needs using humor and evidence-based practices. Parents learn new strategies through role play and homework. She teaches children to manage their anxiety and attention and to understand their learning styles. You can learn about Dr. Stone’s work from her blog at