Scientists Explore the Molding of Children's
New York Times
March 18, 2003
Scientists Explore the Molding of Children's Morals
By SUSAN GILBERT
long with their academic education, students in kindergarten through
12th grade in the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township in
Indianapolis have another field of study: character education.
Each school displays a poster listing what the district has identified
as the "life skills for building character," including
honesty, fairness and trustworthiness. Teachers look for ways to
reinforce these traits each day.
Classroom discussions focus on the moral strengths and weaknesses of
characters in the books that students have read. Students make quilts
and write songs celebrating the life skills. They get buttons and
other rewards for putting the skills into practice.
While the Lawrence Township schools are exceptional in the scope of
their initiative, they are not alone in their effort to calibrate the
moral compasses of their students. Over the last few years, schools in
48 states have introduced character education programs in the hope of
bolstering students' resolve to resist the temptation to lie, cheat,
bully, use drugs and behave immorally in other ways. The Department of
Education has promoted these efforts by giving $27 million in
character education grants since 1995.
Many of the programs draw on some recent research showing that
although all children are born with the capacity to be moral, it needs
to be nurtured by parents, schools and the community at large.
Otherwise, its development is stunted.
Without a firm sense of right and wrong, some experts say, children
tend to become cynical, alienated and extremely selfish. They cheat to
get ahead, rationalizing that "everybody does it." They lack
the social obligation to control their anger when they feel that they
have been wronged. In the extreme, tragedies happen, like the massacre
Much of the impetus for character education in schools is a perception
that the moral fiber of children as well as adults is unraveling.
Two-thirds of Americans think that society is less honest and moral
than it used to be, according to "Bowling Alone," published
in 2000, by Dr. Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at
Last year, a poll of 12,000 high school students by the Josephson
Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit organization in Marina del Rey,
Calif., found that 74 percent admitted cheating on a test in the
But some researchers - while not denying that there is considerable
room for improvement - say children today are no less moral than
their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were as
Dr. Elliot Turiel, the author of "The Culture of Morality,"
published last year, says cheating is just as common today as it was
in the 1920's. He compared surveys of students done then with the
findings of recent surveys like those of the Josephson Institute and
found that the percentage of students who admitted to cheating was
roughly the same.
"It may be that kids today are fresh and disobedient in fairly
large numbers," said Dr. Turiel, a psychologist at the University
of California at Berkeley, "but was it really different in the
past? It wasn't with cheating."
Dr. Turiel and other researchers criticize many of the character
education programs in schools for being superficial and ineffective.
"Morality isn't traits of character but a complicated set of
judgments," he said.
Dr. John M. Doris, a philosophy professor at the University of
California at Santa Cruz, goes as far as to question whether there is
such a thing as a moral character. He says that the existence of moral
character, described by philosophers as far back as Aristotle, is not
supported in the scientific literature today.
In "Lack of Character," a book published in December, Dr.
Doris reviews the psychology literature on moral behavior and
concludes that character traits have very little bearing on whether a
person will act morally. He cites studies that found that a person's
willingness to do a good deed - in this case, calling the police to
report a street crime - hinges less on character traits like
trustworthiness or altruism than on specific circumstances, whether
the person is in a hurry, for example.
There is little research showing just what techniques work to nurture
morality in children. But the small studies that have been done
suggest that discussions that get students working through moral
quandaries and community service activities have measurable
"High schools that have instituted community service programs
report much less misbehavior and drug use," said Dr. Marvin
Berkowitz, a developmental psychologist at the University of Missouri
in St. Louis, who is compiling a database of research on character
Morality means somewhat different things to different people, but
researchers who study moral development define it as a triad of
emotions, thoughts and actions. Children learn right from wrong from
their parents and other authority figures, but moral emotions
reinforce this knowledge by making people feel guilty when tempted to
tell a lie or fearful that they will get caught stealing or cheating.
In that way, moral thoughts and emotions keep people on a steady
course of moral actions.
"After hunger, a human's most important need is to know what's
virtuous," said Dr. Jerome Kagan, a psychology professor at
Harvard, who has studied moral development. But, he says, children's
desire to be good can falter when they regularly see people getting
away with doing wrong, whether they are bullies on the playground,
scientists who fake data or corporate executives who get rich by lying
At the foundation of morality are moral emotions, which many experts
believe are inborn. These emotions include empathy, fear and guilt.
But it is not until age 2 when children truly begin to understand the
meaning of right and wrong.
Dr. Kagan thinks that the timing is due to a burst of growth in the
neurons that connect the two hemispheres of the brain and, in so
doing, link emotions with judgments. "My view is that this growth
is very important because it links feelings, which are in the right
hemisphere, with knowledge of right and wrong, which is in the left
hemisphere," he said.
Another leap in moral understanding occurs in early adolescence. This
is when young people begin to develop a moral philosophy, the moral
compass that guides their thoughts and actions and helps them make
sense of the jumble of good and bad traits they see in themselves and
"When you're 7, you can hold two opposing beliefs simultaneously
and not see them as inconsistent - your father can be wonderful, and
he can also be a child abuser," Dr. Kagan said. "But when
you're 14, you do see these views as inconsistent. Therefore, one
belief has to go." This intellectual growth spurt coincides with
a growth spurt in the brain in early adolescence, he said, but the
specific areas of brain growth that give rise to moral philosophy are
When people see a "breakdown of morality today," they often
mean that people are more inclined to question authority and
conventions than they once were, a byproduct of the social upheavals
of the past several decades, Dr. Kagan said. But following
conventional rules is not necessarily a moral act, any more than
breaking the rules is necessarily an immoral act, the researchers
Indeed, disobedience can be moral when a rule is immoral. In his book,
Dr. Turiel cites groups around the world that have refused to follow
unjust laws. Under the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, some women
defied laws against educating girls by holding underground classes. In
this case, deception was moral, he says.
In continuing research, Dr. Turiel has found that children as young as
5 are keen enough to see the difference between doing the right thing
and simply obeying orders. In experiments, children say that it is
wrong to steal or hurt someone, even if an authority figure, like a
teacher, tells them to do so.
Dr. Turiel and other researchers caution parents and educators against
jumping to the conclusion that disobedience in children is a warning
sign of moral decay. Children and teenagers tend to break rules that
seem unjust or that simply do not make sense to them, he said.
This does not mean that disobedience should be excused, Dr. Turiel
said, but it suggests that a way to get children to behave better -
and hone their ability to make moral judgments - is to engage them
in a discussion about the rules at home or at school. Such a dialogue,
he said, helps children understand the rules, invites them to speak up
if they think that a rule is unfair and even gives them a hand in
tweaking the rule to eliminate a perceived injustice.
Letting children speak up is not the same as letting them have their
way, said Dr. William Damon, director of the Center on Adolescence at
Stanford. Permissive parenting is to blame for a lack of morality in
children, he said, noting that studies show that such parenting breeds
children with poor self-control and a lack of social responsibility,
two cornerstones of morality.
But overly strict parenting is no better, said Dr. Damon, author of
"The Moral Child" and "Greater Expectations," two
books on moral development. Children raised in a "do as I say or
else" environment also lack self-control and social
responsibility, he said. "You need to talk to kids from their own
perspective and use this as a scaffold from which to teach them about
our own morals," he said.
But talk is not enough. A crucial component of moral education, Dr.
Damon said, is engaging children in positive activities, be they
community service, sports, music, theater or anything else that
inspires them and gives them a sense of purpose.
"One of the most influential things parents can do is to see that
the company their children keep is constructive," Dr. Damon says.
"Do things like go camping with your kids, their friends and
their friends' parents, or get them together for volunteer
How can parents tell if their children are on the right track?
Two signs should be evident by mid-adolescence, he said. One is a
strong, passionate interest. The other is a person who inspires them.
"If your teenager doesn't have these things," he said,
"you need to get the kid hooked up with the kinds of activities
that are likely to light that light. It's different for every kid, but
each one has something, a spark, an interest."