Kids, lies, pants on fire, and good versus evil.

Having just returned from speaking at the Australian Summit on Bribery and Corruption, I was overwhelmed by the huge amounts of money large corporations commit to preventing bribery and corruption in their organisations and the huge amounts of time, money and resources government officials put into prosecuting offenders. It made me think about parallels between organisations and families. These large organisations, and indeed Governments, really want their employees and citizens to be honest and to be decently rewarded for good work. I think that is exactly what many parents want for their families, too – to raise children who are honest and decent people.

So how do we raise children to become honest citizens of the world?

Children go through different phases with good and evil. Let’s consider lying. To tell a lie, actually requires quite a bit of cognitive work. To tell a good and convincing lie requires a big lot of cognitive work. It requires thinking about what happened, predicting consequences, being able to predict what other people might do and being able to understand what other people might believe – lots of social skills are required to be clever about lying to others.

When we assess a child’s moral development, we note that they go through stages as their brains develop and their understanding broadens. In the middle of last century, Kohlberg had a theory that many who have studied child development will recognise. Kohlberg posed a range of dilemmas to children of certain ages and was interested, not so much in whether they got the answers right or wrong, but in the reasoning or justifications that were used to arrive at the answers. One of the more famous dilemmas involves a woman dying and needing treatment….

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $400 for the radium and charged $4,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about $2,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So, having tried every legal means, Heinz gets desperate and considers breaking into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.

When asking children about these dilemmas, Mr Kohlberg believed that children developed through stages in regard to their responses. He suggested that children in their earliest phases of moral development believe that the right thing to do is the thing that won’t get you into trouble or the thing that avoids punishment. If you ask someone at this stage of development if it is okay to take a biscuit from the jar without asking they would say “no” because “you would get in trouble”. In the early years of child development, the wrong thing is defined as the thing you could be caught doing and then get in trouble for. If you are not caught, then there’s no trouble. (I know you are all thinking about adults you know who are still at this early stage of development).

As a child progresses through life and develops morally, the child starts to understand that there is a need for people to do the right thing because it keeps the world in order, makes life predictable and keeps society settled. There is more consideration of other people. Good people are “nice” and they do the “right thing” by others.

With still more development, a child begins to realise that people can have different views and experiences of the world and that these determine what the right thing to do might be. Rules and Laws are important, but children (normally teens by this time) can understand that there is a more universal “good” and that sometimes people try to change or oppose laws because there is a really important reason for doing so that might affect lots of people.

If you search the internet using any search engine to enquire about how to raise honest children you can really see the influence that culture and religion might have on parenting ideas.

One of the things that Kohlberg’s theory has been criticised for over the years is that it ignores the role that culture and experience have on a child’s developing sense of what is right and what is wrong. If you live in a third world country where food and shelter are scarce, there might be different opinions about what is right and wrong. We only have to look at how one culture can be divided about topics like gay marriage or asylum seekers to know that people’s lives are shaped by experiences that lead them to maintain certain beliefs about what is right or wrong. Views of what is “right” are influenced by opinions of their family, the opinions of their friends, workmates, the books they read (what really is “happily ever after”?), the information they regularly surf on the internet, or the things they have witnessed in their lives. Is it okay to offer someone more money to get that surgery faster?  Is it okay to go to jail for protesting about something you really believe in? There will always be some cultural influences on these answers, but it will depend on what the adults in the child’s life believe and how they act and respond to perceived injustices and wrong doings.

What will the child get in trouble for and what will they see others get in trouble for…or get away with?

The ability to understand right and wrong has implications beyond parenting. The ability to be able to tell right from wrong is really important in legal matters involving children. In our society, we recognise that children will differ from adults in their ability to know and understand right from wrong. Under the age of 10, a child cannot be convicted of a crime in Australia. Between 10 and 14 we enter a bit of a complex zone where Courts will usually require that a child can only be convicted of a crime if it was clear that they knew the difference between right and wrong at the time. For children 14 years to 17 or 18, a young person can be convicted of a crime, but we tend not to send then straight to custody and have a range of other options we as a society prefer to take as we recognise that they may not fully understand the wrongfulness of their actions. In some states in Australia, there are adult youth justice options for youth up to 21 years of age where more vulnerable offenders can be sentenced to Adult Youth Justice options and not to adult prisons.

So… if we move from the big heavy stuff of crime and Courts and come back to day to day life in the average Australian home, where are we up to with lies? Is it okay to tell a lie if the truth might upset someone? Is there such a thing as a white lie? How does a secret or withholding the truth differ from a lie? What is sarcasm – how come someone can say one thing with their words but say something else with their tone and is this okay? It’s all very complex and it’s lucky that most children actually take it all on board with the cleverness of their developing brains and the guidance of their families and educators. These clever and developing brains are hungry for information and we should give it to them in regular bite-sized pieces that show them the similarities and differences that different ideas and cultures bring to people choices about what they do. The world is complex. There will always be dilemmas for which there are no clear answers. Meanwhile, though, it is perhaps always wise to check whether we, the grown-ups, are living in line with our values and how we demonstrate these to children in moment by moment ways.

Like all other aspects of parenting, your child’s moral development will depend on what they see and experience in their home life, school and surrounds. Parents need to be clear about what they value and parent to match the values that are important to them.

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