Moral Intelligence: Parents Do Make a Difference
by Michele Borba, Ed.D.
Young adolescence can be a troubling time. There are scores of disturbing indicators to prove it including the steady rise of impulsivity, depression, suicide, violence, peer cruelty, and substance abuse. In addition we are seeing a growing rise in disrespect for authority, incivility, vulgarity, cheating and dishonesty.

We’ve been relentless in our efforts to make a change. But in all our interventions the one area often overlooked is the moral intelligence of the young adolescent. Moral intelligence consists of the personal, social, mental, emotional, and moral skills that make up solid character and guide moral behaviours. It is the capacity to understand right from wrong. It means to have strong ethical convictions and to act on them so that one behaves in the right and honourable way. Moral intelligence is what a young adolescent needs most to counter negative pressures and do what’s right with or without adult guidance.

Cultivating moral intelligence may well be our best hope. The latest research confirms strong moral character can be learned and how teaching it can enhance our students' pro-social behaviours and replace negative ones. However, teachers are not their students’ most powerful moral instructors – parents are. Unfortunately, parents often don’t use their influence due to misconceptions. These seven parenting myths are especially deadly to kids’ Moral IQ:

7 Deadly Myths About Raising Moral Kids

MYTH 1: Moral intelligence develops naturally.
One thing is certain: kids aren't born with moral intelligence. Moral IQ is learned! The best school for learning the critical habits of solid character is always in the home. Too often parents assume these habits develop naturally: and it's a major misconception. To ensure kids acquire strong moral habits and beliefs, parents must intentionally model, reinforce, and teach the virtues and habits comprising Moral IQ. Unless they do, chances are their kids won't acquire them, and they'll be left morally defenceless.

MYTH 2: How kids turn out is all in the genes.
Most of us would agree there are some "givens" we can't change about our kids, such as their genetic makeup and their innate temperament. But even those are not etched in stone. Research verifies it. One 12-year study of 72-pairs of genetically related adolescents found their biological tendencies could be either be encouraged or stifled depending on how their parents responded to them. The bottom line: biology is not destiny if parents realize that a good deal of how kids turn out rests in how they treat their kids. If kids are treated morally and deliberately taught moral skills and beliefs, researchers say chances are high they will become moral. But the first critical step is for parents to realize they do make a difference in how their kids turn out.

MYTH 3: Moral beliefs are set by early teens.
Research confirms moral growth is an ongoing process that will span the course of our children's lifetimes. In fact, current studies say the part of the brain where conscience is formed isn't fully developed in males until 21 years of age. The adolescent years are when kids need adult guidance about tough moral choices most. So moral-building endeavours must be continuous and not stop during those teen years when parents often erroneously believe their kids' moral growth has stopped.

MYTH 4: Peers influence kids' morals more than parents do.
Scores of studies-including ones by the American Academy of Pediatrics - report that while peers do have a huge moral influence, parents influence their kids on moral issues that matter most such as religion, education, and values. Peers influence deals more with daily issues such kids' entertainment, music, and dress choices. Parents must recognize they can still have the inside track in their children's moral development because they can have the closest relationship, if they chose to nurture it. The bottom line: peers will be a bigger moral influence if parents allow them to be. And today's parents can't afford to make that mistake.

MYTH 5: Intelligent kids turn out morally intelligent.
Intelligence does not guarantee moral behaviour. If you need proof just think of brilliant leaders-such as Hitler, Stalin, Lenin-who were also evil. If parents are to succeed in raising moral children they must help their kids not only think morally but also act morally. And that means they must deliberately teach their kids critical Moral IQ skills such as resolving conflicts, empathizing, managing anger, negotiating fairly, using self-control, etc. We've always known that the true measure of character rests in our actions-not in mere thoughts. Unless children know how to act right, their moral development is defective. And that knowledge rests not in their IQ score but in what they've been taught.

MYTH 6: Moral growth starts at school age.
A common mistake parents make is waiting until their kids are 6 or 7- the so-called Age of Reason-to build their moral IQ. By then poor moral habits have formed and are so much harder to break. The fact is parents can start enhancing kids' moral growth when they are toddlers. Although at that age they certainly don't have the cognitive capacities to handle complex moral reasoning, that's when the rudiments of moral habits-such as exercising self-control, being fair, showing respect, sharing, and empathizing-are first acquired. So the earlier parents begin cultivating their kids' moral capabilities the better the chance they have of raising good moral beings.

MYTH 7: Previous generations didn't build kids’ Moral IQ, so parents today shouldn't have to.
Today's kids are being raised in a much more morally toxic atmosphere than previous generations for two reasons. First, a number of critical social factors that nurture moral character are slowly disintegrating: adult supervision, models of moral behaviour, spiritual or religious training, meaningful adult relationships, personalized schools, clear national values, community support, stability, and adequate parents. Second, our kids are being steadily bombarded with outside messages that go against the values we are trying to instil. Both factors make it much harder for parents to raise moral kids.

Today's parents can no longer sit back and assume their kids become decent human beings. Deliberately teaching the moral virtues and habits that make-up strong Moral IQ is the best assurance parents have that their kids will lead moral lives. Their first step is dispelling seven deadly myths so their kids do turn out moral.

Test a Young Adolescent’s Moral IQ

Here’s a quiz to asses how well your young adolescent is developing this essential Moral IQ that he/she will need for living ethically in today’s troubling times.

The Young Adolescent (without adult reminders or coaxing) regularly:

Answer with a Yes or No

____ Shows sensitivity and has a lot of feeling for others.

____ Tries to see things from the other person's view, not just his/her own.

____ Is honest and trustworthy; can be counted on to keep his/her word.

____ Feels shame or guilt about his/her wrong actions; accepts the blame.

____ Easily calms down when excited or angry; copes with behavioural impulses

____ Behaves appropriately without reminders; thinks before acting.

____ Treats everyone respectfully and courteously; no back talk or sass.

____ Shares, helps, or comforts others with expecting something in return.

____ Is open-minded: listens to all sides before forming opinions.

____ Focuses on the positive traits of others instead of their differences.

____ Tries to solve problems fairly and peacefully; willing to compromise.

If you checked less than 8 "yes" it means the young adolescent’s moral IQ could use some boosting. And the best news is that this intelligence can be taught. It's never too early - or late - to begin.

The Step-By-Step Plan to Building Moral Intelligence

Regardless of who has the greatest moral influence, all follow the following step-by-step plan for teaching young adolescents the seven critical virtues they will need to do what is right and resist any pressures that may defy the habits of good character:

1. EMPATHY - Identifying with and feeling other people’s concerns.
Step 1: Foster awareness and an emotional vocabulary.
Step 2: Enhance sensitivity to the feelings of others.
Step 3: Develop empathy for another person’s point of view.

2. CONSCIENCE – Knowing the right and decent way to act and acting in that way.
Step 1: Create the context for moral growth.
Step 2: Teach virtues to strengthen conscience and guide behaviour.
Step 3: Foster moral discipline to help kids learn right from wrong.

3. SELF-CONTROL – Regulating your thoughts and actions so that you stop and prec from within or without and act the way you know and feel is right.
Step 1: Model and prioritize self-control to your child.
Step 2: Encourage your child to become his/her own self-motivator.
Step 3: Teach your child ways to deal with temptations and think before acting.

4. RESPECT – Showing you value others by treating them in a courteous and considerate way.
Step 1: Convey the meaning of respect by modeling and teaching it.
Step 2: Enhance respect for authority and squelch rudeness.
Step 3: Emphasize good manners and courtesy – they do count!

5. KINDNESS – Demonstrating concern about the welfare and feelings of others.
Step 1: Teach the meaning and value of kindness.
Step 2: Establish a zero tolerance for meanness and nastiness.
Step 3: Encourage kindness and point out its positive effect.

6. TOLERANCE – Respecting the dignity and rights of all persons, even those beliefs behaviours we many disagree with.
Step 1: Model and nurture tolerance from an early age.
Step 2: Instil an appreciation for diversity.
Step 3: Counter stereotypes and do not tolerate prejudice.

7. FAIRNESS – Choosing to be open-minded and to act in a just and fair way.
Step 1: Treat your kids fairly.
Step 2: Help your child learn to behave fairly.
Step 3: Teach your child ways to stand up against unfairness and injustice.




Dr. Michele Borba is an educational consultant and author who has conducted parent and teacher seminars to over half a million participants. Her latest book is Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing (Jossey Bass Publishers). Information on her publications and seminars can be accessed through her Web site, www.moralintelligence.com.

© 2001 by Michele Borba. Please contact for permission to reprint.


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