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How Do Children Learn Morality?

A Personal Perspective: Challenges to teaching morality in 21st century America.

Key points

  • Morality can be defined as a belief that some behaviors can be right or wrong.
  • A system of moral principles can help maintain an orderly society.
  • People often disagree regarding what represents unreasonable infringement between individuals.
  • We no longer live in a society in which moral upbringing is mostly confined to local influences.
PX Media/Shutterstock
Source: PX Media/Shutterstock

I have encountered many adolescents with a poor grasp of morality in my practice as a pediatrician and counselor for children. This post considers how children learn morality and the challenges we face in teaching moral principles in the 21st century.

Morality is a belief that some behaviors are right and acceptable and others are wrong. A system of moral principles can be generally accepted by a society or by a particular group of people to help maintain an orderly society.

For millennia morality has initially been taught to children in their homes and often has been based on religious principles or guidelines set by a country’s ruler(s). In some societies, formal education later in childhood, provided by the government or private institutions, has augmented children’s moral knowledge.

Teaching Morality to Children

Parents and other caregivers are the first teachers of morality to children. Morality can be taught in many ways:

  • Children learn by copying moral behavior as is modeled by adults in their homes.
  • Discussion about stories is a good way to illustrate morals, including through consideration of movies, fiction, fables, Bible tales, and myths. Children should be encouraged to give their own solutions to moral dilemmas and given feedback regarding their thoughts.
  • One of the tasks of childhood is to shift from selfish thinking to consideration of others’ feelings. Teaching children to think about others can lead to better understanding of moral principles. First, children can learn from thinking about how their actions might affect others. Second, children can be prompted to consider moral issues from the possible perspective of other people.
  • Children should be given consistent, appropriate consequences for inappropriate behaviors, which can help them make better choices in the future.


In 21st-century America, religion has become increasingly irrelevant to many of our population, and government-based laws have often become disrespected for various reasons. Many members of our society believe that rules promulgated by religious or political leaders are biased in support of the leaders’ agenda rather than the well-being of individuals.

Instead, many Americans have chosen to adhere to the morality embodied in our Declaration of Independence that placed individual rights at the center of political life: “All men are created equal…” with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This morality encourages individuals to choose to live as they desire as long as they do not impinge significantly on other people's lives. However, I wonder whether our cohesiveness as a society may be eroded in the absence of a moral authority in addition to that conferred by our individualism.

Further, many controversies in American society arise from disagreements regarding what is considered unreasonable infringement between individuals. For example, some people think that allowing undocumented immigrants into the country is a humanitarian act, while others believe that increasing the American population through illegal immigration is wrong because it infringes on the use of limited societal financial resources for other worthy endeavors.

Another 21st-century challenge involves the vast input of the internet into our lives. We no longer live in a society where moral upbringing is mostly confined to local influences. Most of us are now exposed to global thoughts through social media in which the moral code appears to center on getting attention as a means to becoming rich, as wealth has become the ultimate validation of success.

Several challenges in teaching morality arise because of these 21st-century issues:

  • American children growing up today may observe their parents or caregivers making selfish choices, such as using drugs or overeating to feel good, buying material objects to outdo others on social media, and bullying to get their way.
  • Our children are growing up in a society where the stories that captivate the imagination of large segments of our public often glorify dysfunctional families, criminal or violent acts, the idea that the ends justify the means, and socially inappropriate behavior. In many of these stories, it is unclear who is bad and who is good; much bad behavior is manifested with little or no consequence. Non-critical consumption of such stories provides little opportunity to learn about moral behavior.
  • Children observe that many of us are unable to discuss controversial topics civilly and respectfully. Instead, it has become acceptable to “cancel” or denigrate others when we believe they are wrong. Little effort is expended to accommodate or understand opposing viewpoints because people are so certain they are right.
  • Children’s inappropriate behavior is often excused because of various rationalizations such as that the child may have grown up in an impoverished home, that the behavior could have been much worse, the behavior is age-appropriate, or that the rules governing appropriate behavior are archaic. Also, society has chosen to respond minimally to immoral actions such as shoplifting, underage drug, and alcohol use, or treating elders disrespectfully.

Where do we go from here?

I believe that the described changes in our American society during the early 21st century will lead to a significant societal decline in moral reasoning and behavior during the upcoming decades. Further, I fear that loss of morality will be associated with the severe weakening of our society.

To reverse course, our government, spiritual, public education, and social influence leaders need to recognize the importance of moral education for our society at large. Further, we must learn to consider morality from many different perspectives in our pluralistic society. This is what we should be teaching our children.

If you are a parent, think about your moral beliefs, how you formed them, whether you feel strongly about them, and how you want to convey them to your children best.

We should also consider how better to balance American individualism with society’s needs. As President John F. Kennedy said more than 60 years ago, “Ask not what your country can do for you - Ask what you can do for your country.”

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