When a child is born its mind is essentially a blank slate. Genetics plays an important role in behavior, but the surroundings and the parents’ influence play a bigger role in the makings of their morality and consequently shaping their behavioral tendencies. In early ages, children are more susceptible to external stimuli and constantly look up to adults to know what to do and how to behave, mostly learning by example.
Although learning values is an important part of growing up, it is equally important to teach them how to act upon those values, how to commit to them. For instance, everyone has a sense of right and wrong. Yet, many choose to ignore it in certain occasions. Stealing is well established as wrong, but people still do it. So, it is not only important to teach them values, but also help them build a solid moral identity.
During childhood, values are acquired during different stages over time. Children learn very soon some key values such as honesty or respect. However, they do not act on those values just because they believe in them. They follow certain principles because their parents do it as well.
As infants, they are completely self-centered, but gradually begin to become aware of their surroundings and realize that certain actions have specific outcomes. For instance, if they cry, someone will feed them or tuck them in the crib. At this point, they start developing the roots essential to certain values like empathy or generosity. If the child is nurtured, cared for and loved it will most likely grow up wanting to share those same affections with others. Opposed to children that are neglected, which may be more inclined to ignore other people’s needs or enjoy hurting them in some way.
As toddlers, they start becoming less self-centered and more alert regarding social interactions. They soon realize that actions have consequences, not only for themselves but for others as well. The ability to empathize with others is a natural child trait that gets lost over time if not properly nurtured. Encouraging them to care not only for themselves but also for others, is an important part of the process.
As they grow up and go to school, if the core values are not solidified enough they become susceptible to other peoples’ values. Teachers and classmates will now also impact their lives. Those values may align with the family ones or not. It is important to prepare them for moral conflicts and dilemmas. This can be achieved by teaching moral reasoning to the little ones, helping them take several perspectives and analyze the possible outcomes, showing them why some are acceptable and why others are not. Letting them think and make decisions for themselves is crucial. Making decisions for them all the time instead of showing them the correct path will not be helpful in the long run.
Although children are subjected to a high number of external stimuli at a younger age, they enter the most critical stage when they reach their teen years. At this point, they realize that their parents don’t know everything and start to rebel. Their moral core shifts because of society. Things like popularity or avoiding public shame makes them act differently. They become vulnerable to their class mates’ and friends’ values which many times diverge from their own. It becomes difficult to stay true to the values passed from their parents. Pressure to act a certain way can be brutal and overwhelming. Moral dilemmas arise constantly and at this stage, they sort out which values suit them most and discard the remaining. Moral cornerstones must be well established by then because the influence of their parents diminishes. During this period, children already think independently and stop seeing their parent as authority figures and more as advisors.
The outside world
Experiences at school or during other social activities are not the only ones responsible for a possible update in their values. Television and videogames are a major influence as well. Exposure to inappropriate language, violence and sexuality in early ages can define how a child perceives the world and influence their moral compass. Things that are inappropriate and immoral, due to the excessive exposure start being the new normal and may affect behavior even if it is just at a subconscious level.
With the constant contact with social media, family members stop being the primary role models. Celebrities and other high-profile people influence the little ones and unfortunately not always for the best. Drug and alcohol abuse, sexual exposure and violent behavior shown by some of those individuals can also have an unfortunate impact on their lives. It is not possible to shield them from all those influences. Nonetheless, parents can shift their attention towards more appropriate content, encouraging healthier interests.
Most core values are learned through story telling. So, by reading fairy tales and spending time with their children, parents are in fact laying down the moral foundations in a fun way. Instead of looking up to celebrities and the media, at a younger age those story characters become their heroes and role models showing them valuable lessons and the importance of values as well as the effects and advantages of moral behavior.
Values in adulthood
Although during adolescence a child’s values might change, as they reach adulthood those older cornerstones resurface and their moral compass starts pointing once again in the right direction. Parents that make a real investment in the first years, even with all the bumps that inevitably will emerge as the child grows older, they can rest assured that the investment will pay off.
Values are not static throughout a person’s life, they change along the way due to many factors. Other people’s influence, experiences or even hard learned life lessons. However, if the core values acquired during childhood are well established they eventually resurface stronger than ever.
In the end, teaching children values and helping them build a solid moral identity at a younger age, teaching how to act upon those values, it certainly is the best investment any parent can make.