Helping your child choose right from wrong


Listen to Dr Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre chat with James O'Loghlin on how to raise ethically aware kids.

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Views expressed in interviews may not be the views of the NSW Department of Education and Communities.


At a glance

  • Be a role model – if you behave consistently, your child will learn from you.

  • Create an environment at home where you talk about what happened at school, and go into depth with questions like, "How did you feel about it?", "What do you think was going on?"

  • Get involved at your child's school – becoming part of their school lives will open up communication.

  • Provide a safe environment with some well-defined boundaries, explaining why you feel the way you do about a certain issue.

James O'Loghlin
Welcome to School A to Z. Hello, this is James O'Loghlin.

A very interesting subject this time – ethics.

Now you don't have to wait until you go to school to learn about ethics; parents are trying to teach their children about the difference between right and wrong – which is really what ethics is, in a way – from the moment they can understand.

"Don't take the toy from the other child, share!", all that sort of stuff, "Help your parents", "Bring your bowl out to the kitchen when you've finished" – they're all really trying to teach kids what's right – trying to teach them ethics.

When they go to school, they're away from us and we don't really know what they're getting up to in the playground unless they tell us. So how, then, do we continue to support them in the development of an 'ethical sense'? How do we ... is 'teach' still the right word?

Let's discuss this with the director of the St James Ethics Centre – whose mission is to spread the joys and the importance of ethics throughout the nation – Dr Simon Longstaff.

Simon, welcome!

Simon Longstaff
Thanks James.

Now, did you agree with what I said in the introduction? Is it easier to teach a three-year-old, because they're there and in your power, than it is a 13-year-old?

Well it depends on what you are trying to do. I mean, I think the key to getting children to be supported and to play a supportive role with them as they develop as ethical beings is, firstly, to be consistent yourself. You really need to know something about what you stand for and to be able to give expression to that in your own conduct in relation to your children. But also to get them to the point, as soon as you can, where they start to think a little bit about the sorts of situations they are making choices about.

And that means creating an environment at home where you do talk about what happened at school and rather than just brushing aside something and saying, "Oh, that was a bit unfortunate", actually say, "Well you know, how did you feel about it, what do you think was going on, what do you think we might've decided if we were doing it this at home?" And in order to be able to do that properly, you need to have a real sense of what your own children's school stands for itself.

These schools, I know from when my own children were in primary school, they had a really well-developed ethical code that was there, which was about respect for each other and the world they lived in, and to be proud for what they were and honest and things of that kind. And a lot of schools have got a code of that kind, which they teach to their children, and if you know about that as a parent and compare that then with your own ethical framework and then help the child see how these things fit together and where they don't, things of that kind, then you can play a very active role in trying to move your child from a point where they're just doing things because you told them to, like "bring the plate out now" to a point where they actually start to say, "Actually, that's a reasonable thing for me to do. The reason I have to bring out the plate is because we're a family, we help each other, there's an obligation of reciprocity".

The parents can always tell if their child has always brought out the plate, because they're there. But they can't always tell what happens at school and if you're not there, it's very hard to assess what the right or wrong thing to do is.

One of the things you said earlier was to ask questions – when, how and that information gathering process, which is only possible if your child is open to you and trusts you – sounds like a very important first step.

It's not just that, it's also about whether or not you create a tradition within your own family of having conversations of that kind. If it's all so rushed that you never actually stop as a family to talk about what the day has brought, if the parents never share anything about their own experience, if everything's just quick, "Yeah I got up and did this", then it's extremely difficult to create the conditions under which a child will be comfortable to share those things.

Of course, reality too is that people live very busy lives and as children get older they may not want to share all of the details of their day at school. And so a way in which to engage with that is of course not just to have a climate for open communication with your child, but also for parents to be involved with the school.

I know there are lots of things that parents do in support of their children. Where they go there, they meet with the teachers, they're part of things happening in the tuckshop or whatever else, and as such, if you can do that, you pick up various snippets about what's taking place in the school, which allows you to initiate the conversation with the child and they'll sometimes be surprised about what their parents know about the world they're living in, which they thought was otherwise obscured.

So, you gather information as much as you can. Then there's a distinction, isn't there, between explaining to your child what is right and what is wrong, which might be more appropriate for a three-year-old, and actually giving them the tools for them to work out for themselves what's right and what's wrong, which is probably more appropriate for a 13-year-old?

Actually, I don't know if it's that big a gap with children. Children are remarkably well-attuned to basic ethical concepts, even from an extremely early age. They will be upset if some other child comes and takes something of their own which they know should be theirs. At a very young age they will perceive quite accurately examples of hypocrisy or injustice and they'll be able talk about it. They'll talk about what the teacher did that wasn't fair, or something that a friend did that wasn't appropriate, and so the little 'ethical radar' if you like, is, I think, calibrated very, very early in childhood and it's an opportunity for parents then to appeal to that, to nurture it.

I think that when you're in the pressure of the moment as a parent, and you want your child to do something, the temptation is always just to say, "Just do it" you know, "Just do it", it'll be, "Why? Why? Why do I have to do it?" They'll always ask why. You'll say, "Because you just do it, because I told you so. ... because I'm your father," or something like that. I've done it myself. But also there comes a point where you begin to understand that the child will only get to a point where they're able to make these decisions for themselves if you give them some sense of there being a reason and if you relate it to the world in which they live and play on their natural strengths.

What if a child is getting to that point where they're, what's the expression, no longer a child, but not yet a man or woman —

It's called a teenager!

Yeah, right! And they're making some ethical decisions that seem to be falling more on the line of wrong than right. How can you assist in steering them back?

Well I think, all I can talk about is my own approach to this and that is to provide —

The cane!

Yeah. To provide a really safe environment in which at each stage of their life, there are some well-defined boundaries, which are there not just because you say so – although ultimately you have to evoke on occasions your authority as a parent for their own protection – but because, those boundaries are there because you can give some kind of account of the way things are in the world and the kind of experience they need to have. Now within those boundaries —

Can you give me an example of one?

Yeah like, for example, there'll be – and I'm just thinking of my own children – the desire to push the boundaries in terms of access to certain types of films or video games or things of that kind where the child will be saying, "Look, I'm ready to see this" beyond a classification that would otherwise normally be allowed, or "I should be allowed to go out tonight and do such and such without you worrying about whether you check with the other parents or something – can't you just trust me, surely I'm old enough to do this?"

And every part of you knows that the child would be vulnerable if you broke down your barriers or if you gave permission to go to the thing, so you set boundaries. And I know with my own children, they'd sort of say, "You guys always say no" and things like that. Well it's not true, we don't always say "No", what we'll do is say is, "There are really good reasons for why we might at this point in time say no" – or say yes, depending on what the situation is – but help them to see that as they move through either growing older or growing more mature, the conditions can change and there can be some relaxation of what the rules are, again within pretty clear boundaries. And the point about doing this that I think is important, is that the boundaries are not just being defined arbitrarily, but you're trying to give some kind of coherent ethical framework for why those rules as opposed to others. And then you can have points of contention. Now as I said before, there comes points in time when the argument has gone round and round in a circle and everyone's exhausted and a decision has to be made and in the end it might simply be "Look, I'm your father and in my experience, this is the thing", but I try to avoid that as far as possible and to be open to a good argument.

It seems like one of the key things that you've said is, to really, particularly when kids are at school, to be on the lookout when you're having that chat about the day, if anything comes up that sounds like it might veer on an ethical thing, "I'm having some trouble with some kids in the playground, I had to go to the headmaster", anything like that, your ears should prick up and you should explore it, and once you're doing that, if yourself, you've got a reasonably well developed ethical sense, it will sort of lead you in the right direction.

Yes, both a well-developed sense for yourself and with your partner and family, but also bearing in mind the framework for the school. And sometimes it's going to turn on an incident where nothing seemed to have happened. For example you might hear your child talking about what a group of other people were doing, for example, bullying someone —

Yes, any of those things, and you can either just let it go, or you can use it as an opportunity to say, "What do you think about it?" You know, "How did you respond?" and not glossing over things, saying "You've always got to be a goody two-shoes", but to be open and honest about the difficulties that arise when you sometimes stand on a matter of principle. You can discuss, well where is it appropriate to say, "Actually, I'm going to do something about this knowing full well it may have adverse consequences, people might say ‘Oh, how did you do that? You're not my friend anymore'," and issues of loyalty come into play. But instead of saying, "I'll do nothing about it because this is all too complicated", just to be available to your child as a sounding board so that they can bring forward those issues, know that they can have a serious discussion, and be in circumstances where you as the parent, in alignment with the school, will help to build their capacity to make responsible decisions.

And it's a lot more immediate, isn't it, rather than picking something you're going to discuss off the front page of the paper ... if it's happened, if they've seen it, then they can really engage with it.

I mean look , there is a point, I suppose, particularly as people get older, for having really robust discussions about issues that arise in current affairs and some fantastically important lessons that can be taught just around the family home when you're having a discussion, for example, don't attack the person, attack the idea; try and ask questions when you're genuinely curious, not just trying to score points – these are all part of the culture of debate and discussion that can really bring issues to light.

There is a place for that, but particularly in the early years, being alive to the circumstances that the child is experiencing, being attuned to their world and responding to that and making it all constantly real for them. I think that's the thing that you can do far better than, say, looking at what's on the news.

Simon Longstaff, thank you very much.


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Dr Simon Longstaff
Dr Simon Longstaff

Simon Longstaff is a philosopher whose focus is in the field of ethics. He has been executive director of St James Ethics Centre since 1991. The not-for-profit centre provides a non-judgemental forum for the exploration of ethics. One of Simon's roles is to encourage and contribute to the active discussion of ethical issues among the widest possible audience.

Simon has a bachelor's degree in education and won scholarships to study at Cambridge, where he read for the degrees of Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy.


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