There is no more difficult job than getting children to understand the moral consequences of their actions. And there is a growing feeling that this job is getting harder. Not surprisingly, an army of parenting gurus, products and academics is on hand to offer help to parents and educators.
Many are tempted to turn to systems of punishment and reward like badges, certificates or stickers. These ‘carrot and stick’ behavioural techniques, apparently backed up by the experience of reality TV shows like Supernanny, can no doubt work to reduce problematic behaviour in the short term.
But we need to think about the longer-term effects of these techniques. When it comes children’s moral development, do we want them just to behave, or do we want them to understand? And as they grow up, where do we want them to get their moral guidance from: what others tell them, or what they themselves think and feel?
‘Carrot and stick’ approaches have been criticised. Critics rightly emphasise the need for adults to give patient, clear, context-sensitive responses to children’s behaviour. But we also need to give children some experience of resolving disputes without help from adults. This means sometimes holding back, waiting to see how situations unfold, and perhaps even suggesting that children try to sort out their disagreements for themselves. They may sometimes fail, but they will almost always learn from the attempt.
Some believe that if we try to get children to think for themselves about right and wrong, they will slide into ‘anything goes’ moral relativism – or worse, into ‘Lord of the Flies’-style anarchy. The truth is that we can hold strong moral values – about tolerance, fairness, freedom of thought, respect for others – while accepting that children need to come to understand these values from the inside.
Today more than ever, it is surely vital to make the connection between children’s learning and the defence of rational, democratic ideals: to know the difference between understanding and merely behaving. How do you help children to make this connection?
A version of this article was published in Nursery World in March 2007. Reproduced with permission.