Raising Morally Courageous Kids Who Can Stand Up for Their Beliefs

by | Aug 7, 2009 | Character and Moral Intelligence, Courage and Assertiveness, Peer Pressure

Michele Borba

REALITY CHECK: A recent Time/Nickelodeon survey of 991 kids ages nine to fourteen revealed some troubling facts: 36 percent of the middle schoolers surveyed feel the pressure from peers to smoke marijuana; 40 percent feel pressure to have sex; 36 percent feel pressure to shoplift; and four out of 10 sixth graders feel pressure to drink.

“You know that was wrong. Why didn’t you just say, ‘No?’”

Have you found yourself mumbling those words lately?

Let’s face it. Kids have always had to deal with peer pressure and temptations. The only difference is that in today’s world those pressures are coming to our kids faster and sooner. It’s hard to deny that the world is racier and raunchier. We might as well call the close of America’s twentieth century the “Decade of Moral Erosion.”  Think about it: The Internet became scarier; TV featured more casual sex and vulgarity; video games became even cruder; music lyrics were ruder; movies were often steamier and always more violent. And if that isn’t enough, data shows peer pressure became even fiercer. So what can you do to help your kids counter those negative influences and stand up for what they know is right?

The answer is to nurture a solid moral core that will guide them to stand up for their beliefs and act right without us. And the best news is that we can teach kids the core virtues and skills of strong character and moral courage and can begin when they are toddlers. Here are eights secrets that you can use to help your kids stand up for their beliefs, buck that negative peer pressure, and live their lives guided by integrity. Just remember, it’s never too late—or early—to start.

1.     Know What You Stand For. Parents with clearly identified moral convictions are more likely to raise good kids. Because they know what their parents stand for and why they do, their kids are more likely to adopt their parents’ beliefs. So begin by asking yourself what moral beliefs matter most to you. These will become your personal moral code and guide you in how you will raise your child. It’s also the best way to help your child develop his own moral beliefs. Here are five questions to gauge how well you’re parenting those beliefs in your child:

  • Can you quickly name the two or three virtues you want most for your child to acquire?
  • Can your child name those same virtues you stand for most without your prompting?
  • Do you reinforce your child whenever he shows those virtues in his daily behavior?
  • On any given day would your child see your chosen virtues in your daily behavior?
  • Do you use those virtues as your daily code that guides your parenting decisions?

 2.     Walk Your Talk, Mom. One great question to yourself ask each day is: “If I were the only example my child had to learn moral habits, what did she learn today from watching me?”  The answer can be quite revealing. By watching your choices and hearing your casual comments, kids learn our moral standards. Make sure the moral behaviors your kids are picking up on are ones that you want your kids to copy.

 3.     Share Your Beliefs.  Speaking frequently to your child about values and is called direct moral teaching. Parents who raise ethical kids do it a lot. So look for moral issues and talk about them as they come up: from TV shows and news events to situations at home, school, and friends. Share examples of morally courageous heroes such as Rosa Parks, Pee Wee Reece, Harriet Tubman, Abe Lincoln. Most important: Stand up for your beliefs whenever you feel a major value is jeopardized. Your kid needs to see and hear about moral courage so he has an example to copy.

 4.     Ask Questions To Stretch Moral Growth. Questioning is an important parenting tool for strengthening kids’ moral beliefs. The right kind of questions can help them ask themselves: “Is this the right thing to do?” Here are a few questions that stretch kids’ moral thinking:  “How would you feel if someone treated you that way?” “If you don’t follow through on your word, what would happen?  “If everybody acted that way (cheated, shoplifted) what would happen?

 5.     Reinforce Assertiveness. If you want to raise a child who can stand up for his beliefs, then reinforce assertiveness—not compliance. Encourage him to share his opinions and stand up for what is right. And do so from early age so he can weather the storm of negative peer influence. Parents who raise morally courageous kids expect their kids to act morally – even demand that they do. The truth is that it takes real moral strength to go against peer pressure and to stick up for your beliefs. So teach your child assertive skills so he can take the right kind of stand whenever he’s confronted with a moral dilemma. Here are three ways to boost moral courage:

  • Teach assertive posture. Teach your kid to stand up for his beliefs by using confident, assertive posture: stand tall with feet slightly apart, head held high, and look the person straight in the eye.
  • Say no firmly. Stress that he must say his beliefs using a friendly, but determined voice. Then don’t give in. His job is not to try changing the other person’s mind, but to follow his beliefs.
  • Tell reasons why. Tell him to give the person the reason for his stand. It helps strengthen his conviction: “Stop bullying him: it’s cruel.” Or: “No, it’s illegal and wrong.” Repeating the belief several times boosts assertiveness and helps your child not back down from his stand.

 6.     Boost empathy. Kids who stick up for others are kids who feel for others. Empathy is what motivates that feeling, halts cruel behavior and urges kids to take a stand. Here are two powerful ways to nurture empathy:

  • Ask:  “How would you feel?” Ask your child to think about how another person feels using situations in books, TV, and movies as well as real life. Doing so helps children think about other peoples’ concerns.
  • Use role playing. It helps kids imagine others’ feelings so ask your child to think how the other person would feel if roles were reversed. “Switch sides: what would the other person say and do?” Young kids can use puppets or toy figures to act out the problem from both sides.

Your child’s moral growth is an ongoing process that will span the course of her lifetime. The moral knowledge, beliefs, and habits you instill in her now will become the foundation she’ll use forever. So savor this time with your child and use it wisely, for although she has the potential to achieve moral goodness, it is far from guaranteed. It must be nurtured, influenced, modeled, and taught. Doing so will be your greatest legacy for your child and the best hope that she can rise to the occasion and demonstrate moral courage whenever it may be needed.

Get more Parenting Solutions by following Michele Borba  @MicheleBorba on Twitter or at http://www.micheleborba.com.

Portions of this article are adapted from Michele Borba’s latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries (Jossey-Bass) which is available for order now: