The other day we saw two beautiful splashes of red soaring about the trees behind our home.
"Mom, can we catch one of those cardinals and keep it in our house?" Bess wanted to know.
"Don't you think that the bird would be lonely in our house, without his friend?"
"I'll take him out and play with him!"
"Well, don't you think that he'd rather be outside where he could fly and use his wings, instead of in a cage?"
"Well, maybe we can get him a really BIG cage!"
I've been doing a lot of research on how we can raise our children to exhibit pro-social behaviors, to develop the highest levels of moral reasoning. When viewed within the framework of Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development, what I am interested in finding out is how we can best raise children who will reach the sixth, highest stage of moral reasoning of Universal Ethical Principles.
During my research I came across a study that was done to examine whether parents' levels of moral reasoning has any impact on their children's levels of moral reasoning as teens and adults. Naturally, I thought this was going to be a great study to include in my thesis, as it would provide some empirical support to my idea that we need to teach our children by example.
However, what the study found was that there is minimal correlation between sons' levels of moral reasoning and that of their parents, and daughters' moral reasoning has no discernible correlation with that of their parents.
So, WHAT AM I DOING HERE?
To be fair, it was found that children's moral reasoning skills often exceeded their parents', which is an encouraging finding. However, these results left me wondering, if it is not through example that we teach our children the morals we want them to learn, then how exactly do we teach them to be compassionate, loving, peaceful people?
Well, according to the research, moral reasoning of the highest order - the desire to act according to some personal set of values that considers multiple perspectives and needs - is a SKILL. It is through teaching our children HOW to think, not WHAT to think, that we help them to develop this sort of ability. So, instead of saying to Bess, "No, birds don't belong in cages," we talk about the reasons why I'd prefer not to have a wild bird in a cage in my house. I am not judging those who do have birds as companion animals, and I'm not telling her what to think - instead, I'm trying to teach her to think about it from the bird's perspective. Of course, she's three and not really able to do that yet, but at least I'm planting the seeds of that kind of thought for the time when they're ready to grow.