Teaching Morals

Parental Influence on Morals and Religion

Infants and Toddlers

Your influence begins from your child’s earliest moments and continues for a lifetime. If your example demonstrates to your child that moral traits such as honesty, responsibility, respect and love are important to you, your child will be more inclined to follow your example. If your words and actions conflict, your child will follow your actions, according to Harvard profession Robert Coles, author of “The Moral Intelligence of Children.” Religious education could include reading sacred passages during a family worship time, attendance at a house of worship and living out your faith by example.

Preschool Through Elementary Years

As your child matures, your moral and religious instruction can take on a greater depth, discussing principles through stories, actual situations your child encounters and involvement in a place of worship. The limits you set will also strongly influence your child. Professor Cole advocates using stories to teach your child, as they are more memorable and closer to real world experience. As your child becomes more verbal, he might point out discrepancies between what you do and what you say and ask, “Why do I have to do that if you don’t?” The school curriculum may reinforce your efforts to teach morality and faith, but your example and efforts will bear the greatest fruit.


Between the ages of 10 and 12, your child could begin to question your moral ideas and religion. Your child will be exposed to greater temptations regarding drugs, alcohol, sex, delinquent behavior and peer pressure. She will try the standards you have taught since the cradle and have to make choices about whether she will follow those teachings or not. If your relationship is strong, her desire to please you and stay out of trouble might help her weather the storms easier. She might even tell her friends if she violates the limits you set, she knows that she will have more trouble than she can handle.


Your teen will have many opportunities to put your moral and religious instruction to the test. If your teen understands why those standards are important, he is more likely to follow them, says Cole. Give him more responsibility and freedom to make choices, maintaining firm and consistent limits. Allow your teen to suffer the consequences for violations so he relates stepping over the line with real-life costs, such as fines, jail and failure. He has the foundation -- it’s his responsibility to live with his good and bad choices.

Do Family Morals Affect a Kid's Behavior?

Parental Example

Parental example is usually the first exposure a young child has to the parents' beliefs and morals, states psychologist and author Michele Borba. In fact, the power of this example is strongest for child influence during the first six years of life, counsels pediatrician and author William Sears. During this time, a child views the parents as undisputed experts on virtually everything, and the child watches every day to receive morality lessons on proper conduct.

Examining Emotions

When parents discuss and examine emotions with a child, the child learns important information about feelings. Initially, a child needs parents to identify feelings when they arise by naming them. Parents can teach children that all feelings are natural and normal. Placing boundaries on how children express feelings is the beginning of moral development, according to the Family Education website. For example, it’s understandable to feel frustrated about another child snatching a toy, but it’s unacceptable to hurt someone else when feeling frustrated.

Encouraging Empathy

From the preschool age and onward, it’s appropriate for parents to begin teaching and encouraging empathy. Empathy enables a child to understand how someone else feels and adjust actions to treat others the way she would want to be treated. Empathy enables children to develop pro-social behavior -- voluntary actions initiated with the primary goal of helping someone else.

Moral Progression

Initially, children display moral behavior to please parents or to avoid punishment, according to the Family Education website. Slowly, however, moral behavior progresses away from external motivation and the child internalizes the morals. The internalization of morals means that the child exhibits morals because of a desire to make positive choices.


With the arrival of adolescence, it’s normal for a child to begin questioning parental values and morals as the child makes decisions about personal beliefs. Adolescents also tend to allow emotions to lead behaviors. Even while teens engage in the necessary evaluation of morals and beliefs, parents can remain a solid and steadfast source of influence by staying connected positively with teens. A teen will eventually exit this phase with permanent morals in place that will guide thought processes and actions.

Leaving Kids Without Guilt

This week, I’m leaving my kids for the longest stretch I’ve ever left them—six days—locking me into less-than-a-week status but still taking up two rows on the April calendar. When I originally confirmed the trip months ago, I expected I might feel a little guilty as my departure date grew closer, prompted by tucking kids in bed at night and looking into cherubic faces that motherhood’s twisted guilt inducers would translate to read, “You’re leaving me, Mom? Really?” But surprisingly, I’m feeling completely not guilty, your honor. Not that I’m not sad to be away from them that long; I’ll climb into bed for six nights, craving the smiles and hugs I missed that day. But guilt is rooted in feelings of wrongdoing or inadequacy, and I don’t feel one bit inadequate or wrong for making the choice to spend some time away from my kids to foster areas outside of motherhood.

In fact, I’ll be honest. The responsibility level and exhaustion rate of having three kids has hit some new highs lately. That may or may not have to do with the fact that in one week, I fished two toothbrushes out of a clogged toilet, mopped up a baby powder mess, iced one goose-egg, changed thirty-two diapers, delivered one carefully-planned Calm Down speech to a big sister who found little sister’s scribbles all over her homework, left one load of laundry in the washer past the stink-proof limit and forced three fake smile-so-you-don’t-cry grins. Six days away from home isn’t looking too shabby right now.

More than just redeeming my patience through deserved time away though, this trip comes with the satisfaction of giving my kids a gift. Not only am I giving them the opportunity to practice thriving in different circumstances and with different people (can’t learn it until you try it); I’m setting an example that I hope they follow, whether they have kids or not: explore your world, connect with people, take care of yourself, get involved in something. As I explained to my oldest daughter the other night what I’ll be doing on my trip—meeting other writers, talking about a hobby I love, telling stories, listening to others’ stories, going for hikes, taking pictures—I watched as she absorbed it, storing it in the “Things Moms Do” file, right next to “take care of us” and “love us.”

This isn’t the last of my traveling this year, and though kissing their temples and holding them tight for one more “I love you, I’ll miss you, but I’ll be back” always stings while it happens, I’m more confident in my decision to take time away. I feel and see the benefits within our own family, even though traveling comes with inconveniences. I’m happier, they’re more resilient, and we’re all becoming more relaxed and open to the revolving door of life’s opportunities and the sacrifices we all make to embrace them.

And the best part? Coming home. With stories and lessons and experiences that make me more aware of my strengths and weaknesses and more conscious of the world around me. That in itself makes me a better mom.

Moral Development of Children in Early School Years

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg developed his theory of moral development as a model of how children and adults develop morality and conscience. His theory includes three levels with two stages each. The first stage that young children occupy is the pre-conventional level. During this stage of development, young school-aged children learn to obey because the consequence of disobeying is unpleasant. Their actions are founded in the avoidance of punishment. Gradually, young children will begin to choose good behaviour to receive social rewards. According to textbook author Laura E. Berk, children in the pre-conventional stage of moral dilemma are unable to comprehend people's intentions, and they judge all behaviour by consequences.

Psychoanalytic Theory

The psychoanalytic theory of moral development emphasises the role of guilt in school-aged children. During early childhood the expression of empathy-based guilt develops in children. Young school-aged children begin to realise they can hurt people and feel bad when they do so. Encyclopedia.com describes guilt as "major determinant of action in situations of moral conflict or temptation." Early childhood experiences with punishment likely influence the formation of guilt. Although children in the early childhood years may not always behave in accordance to what will induce guilt, they are able to recognise guilt feelings after they commit a wrong action.

Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory of moral development does not emphasise a particular time line of morality development. Morality is instead learnt through reinforcement and modelling. North Carolina State University recommends that adults model caring and thoughtful behaviour so young, impressionable children will learn pro-social behaviour. Author Laura E. Berk reports children exhibit more responsiveness when they have attentive and warm caregivers. Highly punitive parents, however, may compromise a child's ability to internalise moral rules. By middle childhood most children have adopted rules of conduct.

Cognitive-Development Perspective

The cognitive-development perspective describes the thinking processes that develop morality in children. By the early school-aged years children are making moral judgments. They actively think about the ideals of right and wrong and apply those concepts to their own behaviour. Social justice and rights of the individual become topics children contemplate. Children are capable of distinguishing between social conventions and matters of personal choice. Children begin to understand the contexts of their actions and the moral implications. Intent becomes more important.

How to Deal With Parental Guilt

Examine the situations that form the basis of your parental guilt to determine your specific responsibility. Warning: If you’ve wrapped yourself up so tightly in guilt that you have trouble assessing the situation effectively, you may need help with this from an impartial and objective person. For example, if you have parental guilt about the amount of time that you spend with your child, you may need objective input about whether you are assessing the situation correctly.

Apologize to your child to make amends for your shortcomings. Optimally, this should be a heartfelt conversation in which you discuss the situation and communicate your sorrow at having failed or wronged your child. After apologizing, make a commitment that you won’t repeat past mistakes that created the situation. Ask your child specifically for forgiveness, Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., advises on the Psychology Today website.

Right the wrong, if possible. For example, if you realize that you promised your child that you would do something and did not follow through, rectify the situation by keeping your promise.

Forgive yourself for the wrong and move forward. This may be the hardest step if you’ve been strangling yourself with guilt. Feeling guilty can be a habit that takes time and effort to break, states the Family Education website. Instead of focusing on the past, make a conscious decision to think about the future and focus your efforts and energy on positive parenting.


Parental guilt can surface from giving too much, giving too little, losing a temper, not spending enough time or making other mistakes. Parenthood doesn’t come with specific instructions, so every parent uses experiences and beliefs to formulate parenting principles, states the Illinois Early Learning Project. Guilt, used positively, may influence you to make necessary adjustments to improve parenting. Unresolved guilt may lead to ineffective and negative parenting that leads to children manipulating and not accepting responsibility.