Growing Ethical Little Ones
Greg Richards, Ph. D.
Director, Middle Grades Ethics Project
We all desire to raise our kids to be truthful, fair, and honest. Greg Richards's long research provides eight specific insights for you to ponder.
1. Developing Critical Thinking Skills - We need to create around our young people a culture—or perhaps more accurately—a counter-culture that stimulates conversation and learning on ethics and character. As in any endeavor, there is a common vocabulary that enables parents, kids, and educators to communicate—words like right, wrong, good, evil, core value, dilemma, character, ethics. Our kids need parents and other significant adults in their lives who take the time to share from their hearts what they believe and cherish and why. Kids need a way to think critically about the messages that bombard them from so many media and choose which messages are consistent with their core values.
2. Teachable Moments - We need confident parents and other adult guides and mentors who do not shrink from the opportunity to speak up in the face of wrong or disrespect or injustice and see as teachable moments when kids treat others in cruel or disrespectful ways. We also need to extoll acts of kindness and service to others that inspire us all to be better citizens.
3. Importance of Core Values - We need to help our children and young adults adopt core values that will serve them in their decision-making, relationships with others, and consideration of risky behaviors. The best source comes from the values of parents and extended families, who may also draw on precepts from their religious community. Schools with character education programs may have a list of character traits, periodically emphasizing them in turn. Schools and other organizations may also list standards (sportsmanship standards, the Scout law) that can provide a source for kids as they construct their own list. Families and schools need to emphasize their core values, draw on them regularly, apply them to decisions and discipline, and repeat them as you would any important concept.
4. Those All Important Boundaries and Limits - We need to be concerned with setting boundaries and limits. Our adult brain actually has a mechanism (in the insular cortex), designed as a survival tool, that warns us instantly of impending harm if we don’t stop. That mechanism is immature in the adolescent brain, except as it applies to peer approval, which can encourage risky behaviors. Of course, effective parents and educators balance limit-setting with encouragement and support. I should note that many young teens challenge their parents with persistent inappropriate, even outrageous, requests and secretly receive a sense of security when their parents put on the brakes.
5. Actions Speak Louder Than Words - We need to help our kids find positive role models. Ethics, like spiritual growth, is more often caught than taught. “What you are doing speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying.” Young children soak up our words and actions—and repeat them back to us, often at awkward moments! My wife was at the ready to point out, something one of our toddlers shouted, “He didn’t hear that from me!” Encourage ongoing connections of kids with adults with high ethics and who treasure your children. Grandparents can be great allies in this essential role (and acceptable to parent and child!). The brains of older children and teens release a chemical reward for following peers in novelty, passion, and risk—we may find ourselves countering the messages and priorities of prevailing culture at any given moment.
6. Needed! More Adults Engaged In Bettering the World to help guide our young people. Particularly at this time in history, our young adults need an antidote to the cynicism, fear, and despair that characterize so much of their world view. This pessimistic sense of life around them removes much of the incentive to do better in light of a bleak future and to do good when it seems like everyone else is out for themselves. Cynicism poisons ethics. Two ways to disable cynicism are a historical sense of how character and goodness can grow through adversity and how service to others can significantly change our world and ourselves.
7. Cultivate a Sense of History - We need to convey a sense of history to our children and young adults, including personal history,that demonstrates how resilient, good lives develop through hard times. Those who live the most significant lives grew through struggles that defined their moral character. History teachers can emphasize how heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks struggled and suffered long before their great triumphs. Even more important are the experiences of our children’s personal heroes, like the immigrant grandfather who at great personal cost and risk escaped tyranny to escape to the new world, or the elderly family friend who fought a crippling disease throughout childhood before becoming a world class gymnast against all odds. Character and resilience grow through the struggles. There are no shortcuts to true greatness and self-satisfaction.
8. Kids and Adults Partnering To Make a Difference - We need to guide our young people toward opportunities to work alongside adults who are making a difference in the world through service. Here is a most positive way to meet the adolescent need for novelty and risk-seeking, to get those shots of feel-good chemicals from their brain along with earned self-esteem and positive recognition. I have seen many teen lives dramatically changed through providing meaningful service to others. And I have seen the lives of many people helped by teen volunteers who are profoundly changed as well. Prevention studies show that significant service experiences provide a kind of vaccination against risky behaviors of many kinds in teens. My experience and research also show that meaningful service to others fosters stronger and more resilient core ethical values.
The preceding is a summary of a parent education presentation dubbed by one school psychologist as “Parenting 101”. You will find more resources for fostering the ethical character of young adolescents at our website, EthicsInTheMiddle.org.
Greg Richards is founder and director the Middle Grades Ethics Project, providing strategies and resources to foster ethical character in students and their schools. Greg’s multi-disciplinary Ph.D., included adolescent brain development, developmental psychology, and curriculum development. He has taught ethics to young people in various educational settings for decades and founded a parent education and early childhood education center. He is the author of Ethics for Young Adults, including a version for law enforcement officers and When Someone You Know Is Hurting. He shares his research and experience in schools, colleges, and conferences several times a year. He believes that his most important preparation for sharing expertise with other parents comes from raising two sons. To his joy, his family now includes a grandson, born in 2017.
Contact Greg Richards at email@example.com.
Growing Ethical Little Ones
Greg Richards, Ph. D.
Director, Middle Grades Ethics Project
Reflections on Mary Pipher’s
The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families
In The Shelter of Each Other, Dr. Mary Pipher supplies us with wonderful tools to protect and nurture our families by building memories, traditions, and connections that bring joy, help us weather storms and hold together. The book has so much more to teach us beyond my brief summary and reflection here.
My wife Debbie and I, like so many of our Baby Boomer contemporaries, are in the throes of “de-cluttering” and down-sizing in anticipation of moving into smaller, less complicated real estate. Each of our adult sons has been summoned to the task of re-claiming his possessions, previously packed in boxes, moved from house to house, now stacked to the ceiling of two walk-in closets in our current home. These are precious possessions: albums, journals, story books, games, childhood toys, clothing, sports and camping gear. We have all relished several emotional excursions re-living family experiences, journeys, homes, celebrations, tragedies, and rituals. And the possessions that represent all those moments in our common life are emotional artifacts and so difficult to release.
Such is the fabric of the life and history of a family. Dr. Mary Pipher utilizes such souvenirs of common family life to illustrate the construction of a protective and comforting shelter above us.
In my earlier installment on nurturing the ethics and core values of our children, I summarized eight strategies for parents and other significant adults for setting limits and promoting love and hope. Today, I recommend a thoughtful blueprint by a renowned psychotherapist (and parent) for building family life that inspires positive development and core values. Most importantly they help sustain our children as they become adults and create their own families.
This is a particularly accessible volume of psychological truths that uses stories as the vehicle. Dr. Pipher shares her own family history written so poignantly from her conversations with clients in her private practice.
The book examines the challenges to contemporary family survival and how parents can create and recreate protection and connection. In so doing, she beautifully and profoundly reinforces family virtues and personal character development of family members.
Paraphrasing Dr. Pipher, here are five ideas to provide shelter for us and our children with some observations from my personal and professional experience.
1. Protect family time and connections with family rituals.
Rituals in family life become even more important as our children grow more independent and seek individuation. Rituals may mark time in our religious life, family traditions, or accomplishments of individual members. One of our boys in early adolescence chose to rebel from our delicious family ritual carrot cake for birthdays. He told Debbie that he preferred cheesecake, which she made after purchasing new special baking pans and investing significant time. He seemed pleased and pleased with himself. But the following year, when she asked him if he wanted his cheesecake, he replied edgily, “Of course not, carrot cake.” The cheesecake pans are going in our next “downsize” yard sale.
2. Protect family unity with shared interests.
Hobbies, activities, service to others, and pets are examples of bringing family members together. Children’s athletic commitments provide one example. Our small dog, D.D. would field the soft baseball at family backyard games, especially to sharpen skills during T-ball season. Some thirty years later, experiences like that still provide delightful living memories
3. Protect family memories with special places.
Our boys loved tent camping when they were young. They looked forward to it all year. We often camped at the same Redwood parks. Of course, on vacation, most of us take more photos than usual, which help preserve memories. We were also blessed to have access to a mountain cabin and a condo in Kauai in their growing up years. Those places were significant in our growth as family not only because of their natural beauty, but also because they took us away together for a few days of R & R and sheer enjoyment.
4. Protect family history with important celebrations.
The 50th wedding anniversary of grandparents, lighting candles for the Sabbath or Kwanzaa, the baptism or bat mizvah of a cousin, and the funeral of a family elder are examples of occasions to reunite and celebrate. Such moments define a family’s uniqueness as well as special connections in the larger family circle. These celebrations provide a context for spiritual, emotional, and social growth and identity, incredibly important towards nurturing more secure and stable adults.
5. Protect family beliefs with shared stories.
Most families share the same stories so often when they are together it is hard to tell if we are recalling facts or sharing an account that has been embellished over time. Do I really remember the childhood stories about me, or do I remember the story as told me so many times as I grew up?
To Mary Pipher, such stories provide us with underlying virtues, values, beliefs, and metaphors that guide us through the generations. One of the favorite exercises I employ in teaching ethics to young adolescents is having them interview a grandparent or other elder to hear their stories of growing up and how the older mentor survived difficulty, grew in character and applied important core values.
I heartily recommend The Shelter of Each Other. Dr. Pipher is a treasure. I know you will gain great insight as you strive to grow your family connections and shared values.
Please write me at or visit our website at EthicsInTheMiddle.org).