How to Teach Your Teens the Right or Wrong

by Megan on April 16, 2012

All parents want to raise good children as individuals who have a strong set of values and the courage to stand up for what they believe is right. In adolescence, this sometimes seems like an uphill battle. The peer group may promote norms and values that undermine what parents are attempting to teach their children. TV soaps and serials treat violence, law-breaking, and casual sex as normal everyday events. In the culture as a whole, the hippie motto of the 1960s “Do your own thing” acquired new, materialistic, yuppie overtones in the 1980s that made the old ethics of self-discipline, self-denial, sacrifice, and service to others seem just that old.

Don’t give up.

If you understand how your adolescent thinks about moral issues, and how moral reasoning changes over the course of adolescence, you will be better able to encourage healthy values, attitudes, and behavior.

Advances in Moral Reasoning

How to Teach Your Teens Right or WrongThe development of moral reasoning follows predictable patterns. The young child’s morality is based on self-interest. To 6-and 7-year-olds, what’s fair is getting an equal slice of the pie.

They avoid temptations because they don’t want to get into trouble. If they do something nice to someone, they expect something nice in return. On the other hand, if a school chum is mean, they are mean in return. Their basic operating principle is tit-for-tat, or “Do unto others as they do unto you.”

Around age 8 or 9, children begin to be concerned about how others view them. What’s right at this stage is living up to the expectations of people you know and care about. The reason to be good is to earn social approval. The older elementary school child and preteen are attuned to the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They look beyond the immediate consequences of an action for them, personally, to the long-term impact of a moral decision on their relationships with other people.

They can put themselves into another person’s shoes and imagine how they would feel if they lost five dollars, were left out of a game, or were pushed around by a bully. They see the limitations of getting even and understand the principle “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” They don’t need to be bribed or threatened into obedience; they want to be good. Above all, they want others to think well of them. This has been called the “good boy/nice girl” stage of moral development.

The drawback to this way of thinking is that what is good is confused with what other people expect. This may be fine when the people the child is trying to please set high moral standards but what if the audience applauds deception rather than honesty, defiance rather than cooperation, risk-taking rather than self-respect, and snobbery and sarcasm rather than generosity and kindness?

When the “good boy/nice girl” level of moral reasoning first appears, in mid to late elementary school, parents are delighted. The child seems more caring, more cooperative, and generally easier to live with. The reason? She is eager to please her parents. In junior high, however, the same child may suddenly seem sullen, uncooperative, and rebellious. The reason? She is now more interested in pleasing her peers.

At this age, moral decisions are likely to be based on what she thinks will make her popular. “But Mom, everybody does it” is a common refrain. A girl who was nice to a shy, friendless child in sixth grade, because she had been taught to be kind, may turn clannish and cruel in eighth grade to maintain her status with her peers. One who would never have considered stealing may now see petty shoplifting as a game. Thus, the strength of this stage of moral reasoning and desire for approval is also its weakness.

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