What’s the best way to teach young children the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, and appropriate and inappropriate behavior? We understand the importance of early spiritual training, and we’ve been praying with our child and reading her Bible stories ever since she was old enough to listen and understand. But the challenge of instilling practical moral values seems more difficult. How would you approach this with a child in the elementary grades?
During the next few years, your child will need to make a crucial transition. She will have to shift from “being good” because you told her so to becoming civilized and virtuous on her own. Whatever you choose to call it – internalizing values, assimilating moral principles, buying into what you’ve taught her or developing good habits – encouraging and facilitating this process is your most important responsibility as a parent. Naturally, you can’t expect to be 100 percent successful in this area – none of us will ever be morally perfect while we live in this world. But you can monitor your child’s progress in a number of important areas, including:
- An active, meaningful faith in God that is applied to everyday life experiences and influences attitudes and decisions.
- Respect for others within and outside the family, regardless of age, race, sex, appearance or behavior.
- Submission to human authorities and to God.
- Respect for the property and possessions of others.
- An understanding that happiness does not ultimately depend on material things.
- A commitment to honesty and integrity, along with a consistent, internalized habit of telling the truth.
- Self-control, self-discipline and an understanding of the importance of delaying gratification while working toward future goals.
- A genuine repugnance for obscene, offensive, or profane language.
Obviously your child will not develop these virtues overnight. She may do the right thing repeatedly out of obedience to you. But growing in wisdom and exercising moral values is a lifelong project, and such values are learned most effectively through example and modeling. She will learn a great deal about faith when she hears you pray; about respect for property when she witnesses you paying for something you accidentally broke; and about relationships when she sees you apologize when you’ve done something wrong. She will be all ears as you respond to annoying situations and people, and like it or not, she will probably imitate your language and attitudes when she’s faced with similar circumstances. She may not understand or appreciate how hard you work to provide food, clothing, shelter and other necessities and niceties of life. But when you demonstrate courage, kindness, appreciation and charity, your actions will be deeply embedded in her memory.
Finally, it’s important to remember that even with this kind of intentionality, most of these interactions can’t be planned or crammed into a few minutes of “quality time”. Most opportunities to teach or model moral values arise naturally of their own accord and can’t simply be orchestrated or “scheduled”. So attempt to also spend “quantity time” with your child so that you won’t miss those authentic teachable moments when they occur. You can’t seize the moment if you’re not there to do the seizing.
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Parents’ Guide to the Spiritual Growth of Children
Faith Conversations for Families
Raising Kids with Christ-like Conviction
Talking As a Family About Topics of Faith
Spiritual Growth For Kids