Helping our children become thoughtful decision-makers goes beyond conscience formation.
Good judgment is a big part of good character. Helping our children become thoughtful decision-makers goes beyond conscience formation (directly teaching what’s right and wrong and why). Developing our kids’ decision-making skills means teaching them certain questions or “tests” they can use to evaluate any given behavior. Should I let this person copy my homework? Go to a party that I know my parents would not approve of? Tell less than the whole truth if they ask where I have been? Participate in gossiping about a kid at school that my friends do not like?
Here are nine ethical tests we can teach our children to apply:
1. The Golden Rule (reversibility) test: Would I want people to do this to me?
2. The fairness test: Is this fair to everybody who might be affected by what I say or do?
3. The what-if-everybody-did-this test: Would I like it if everyone else did this? Would I want to live in that kind of world?
4. The truth test: Does this action represent the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
5. The parents test: How would my parents feel if they found out I did this? What advice would they give me if I asked them if I should do it?
6. The religion test: Does this go against my religion?
7. The conscience test: Does this go against my conscience? Will I feel guilty afterwards?
8. The consequences test: Might this have bad consequences, such as damage to relationships or loss of self-respect, now or in the future? Might I come to regret doing this?
9. The front-page test: How would I feel if my action were reported on the front-page of my hometown paper?
Kids would not, of course, apply all these tests to every moral decision they make. But even if they apply some of them, they will make better decisions than if they act on impulse or without considered judgment. Even asking one of the above questions—about consequences, for example—could deter a behavior that brings harm to self and others. Interviewing Monica Lewinsky about her affair with President Clinton, Barbara Walters asked: “At any time, did you consider the possible consequences your actions might have for yourself, for the President, for his family, or for the country?” Lewinsky replied, “No, I did not.”
In addition to the nine ethical tests, there is a problem-solving process we can teach our children to use when they are faced with a moral dilemma where the best course of action is not immediately clear. For example, some kids at school are picking on another kid, but you are afraid that if you tell an adult, it might just get worse for the kid and maybe they will turn on you. Or, you have been accepted into the popular crowd at school, but they do not like the girl you have been best friends with and make it clear you have to choose between them and her.
With these or any other difficult moral challenges, the following steps can aid decision-making:
1. Consider alternatives. What are different ways of trying to deal with this problem?
2. Weigh consequences. What are the likely good and bad results of the different alternatives for the people who would be affected, including myself?
3. Identify the moral values. What moral values are involved? Which ones are most important?
4. Seek advice. What person(s), such as parents, teachers, or an older sibling, could I ask for help in deciding what to do in this situation?
5. Make a decision. Which course of action does the best job of respecting the important moral values and producing good consequences?
Advice-seeking is especially important to stress with our children. They should know that even adults, if they are wise, don’t make important decisions—especially about tough problems—without seeking counsel from at least one person whose judgment they respect.
Finally, we should teach kids that important decisions require a clear mind and a calm emotional state. They should not be made when we are tired, stressed, angry, or upset in any way. And they should not be made in a hurry. We will almost never regret taking more time to make an important decision. We may very well regret not taking enough time.