Kids learn about character from their families, schools, friends and even strangers. And the lessons aren't always black and white. Eventually, so-called situational ethics show up on a child's good vs. bad radar.
For instance, parents often instruct children in the art of telling a "white lie" to avoid hurting someone's feelings. Few would agree that honesty at all costs is a more noble virtue than compassion or kindness. But once you open the door to dishonesty, it may become harder to discern a clear boundary between a little white lie for compassion's sake and a fib meant to avoid punishment or a fudging for the sake of success.
"Honesty is fluid and people can justify almost anything. You can justify lying if it's to save someone's feelings or to protect someone you love," Staib says. "Most of us could even justify murder if it were done in the name of protecting ourselves or others."
Often, grown-ups who consider themselves people of good moral character continue to struggle with sticky situations involving competing values. Staib, who is also a mom, admits to the common offense of telling schools her daughter was sick instead of on a special family trip, in order to protect her from the consequences of an unexcused absence.
Adults are fairly adept at compartmentalizing such actions, and Staib believes that as long as they reflect on these situations and ask themselves the difficult questions, they're probably still on the right side of the good person/bad person line. But being able to discern why one lie might be more acceptable than another is a difficult concept for youngsters.
"All kids see is the lie," says Julie Dwyer, who heads up the Josephson Institute's youth education program, Character Counts.
So parents need to be both careful and clear with their kids. On the upside, lest parents think that one or two missteps will scar their kids forever, experts say that when children witness how parents deal with the gray areas of ethics, it actually encourages the development of critical thinking. And that's an essential component of good character.
"No one is perfect. Everyone struggles," Dwyer says. "The best thing, I think, is that when you do struggle, you should let your kids see that. It helps them think things through, too, and decide what they would do."
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These books are just a few among many that focus on teaching children good character.
- A Call to Character: A Family Treasury of Stories, Poems, Plays, Proverbs and Fables to Guide the Development of Values for You and Your Children, by Collin Greer and Herbert Kohl, HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.
- Instilling a Sense of Integrity in Your Child, by Joe DiPrisco with Michael Riera, Perseus Publishing, 2003.
- Teaching Right from Wrong: 40 Things You Can Do to Raise a Moral Child, by Arthur Dobrin, Berkley Books, 2001.
- Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character (CAEC) - Develops training and awareness programs on character education, with a focus on schools. See the Web site's "For Parents" section for 10 tips on teaching children character.
- Character Education Partnership (CEP) - Advocates effective character education in K-12 schools and promotes the concept that character education must be infused throughout the school environment.
- Josephson Institute of Ethics - Develops ethics education materials, including the youth initiative Character Counts (www.charactercounts.org), and school, business and public training programs. It surveys high school students on ethics every two years for its "Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth."