Moral Choices and Our Kids

Guest Post by Sandra Humphrey

In working with young people, both as a clinical psychologist and as a volunteer, I have noticed that many of them are lacking a sense of direction to their lives and have no strong set of personal values or belief system.

Our character is an integral part of who we are and having a strong set of values helps us define our character.

Strong character is not instinctive. It’s learned and it’s never too early to begin talking with our young people about personal values and helping them define and develop their own code of moral conduct. 

As society’s moral guidelines become increasingly more ambiguous, it’s more essential than ever that we all have our basic code of ethics well crystallized in our own minds.

Just as bodybuilding builds strong physical muscle through “sets” and “reps,” we also need to help our kids build good moral muscle. And we can do this by dialoguing with our kids about choices. Moral Choices.

Life is all about choices. The choices we make determine not only our character but also the quality of our lives. As they say, practice makes perfect and one way we can help our children is to help them practice or rehearse what they would do in different situations before they are actually confronted by those situations in real life.

Our ultimate objective for our children is to empower them to make their own choices–good choices. And we can help them do this if we can get them THINKING and TALKING about moral issues. Kids love to talk and we just have to give them the opportunity to do so. 

Here are a few ideas and questions to facilitate some great discussions:

“Honor” is an old-fashioned word. What does it mean and has it gone out of style? (I have found that some kids have no clue what “honor” or “reputation” really means). 

We all need a “moral compass.” What does this mean to you? Do you have a “moral compass?” If so, how would you describe it? (I have found that kids like the concept of a “moral compass” and can relate quite easily to this question). 

How do you test the choices that you make? One good test is the test of time. How will you feel about this choice a month from now? One year from now? (You will probably be amazed at how dramatically our kids’ concepts of time differ from our own).

Is your speech a reflection of your character? Is your speech different in the locker room than it is at home or at church? Do you have more than one language–a different language for different occasions? (This question usually provokes a lot of discussion and disagreement between kids about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable).

What does “being cool” really mean to you? (This one can stimulate some great discussions with a lot of varied and spontaneous feedback).

How do you decide whether something is right or wrong? Is it just a question of whether anyone else will get hurt? (This one will really get kids thinking and hopefully talking).

How important is winning? Does it really matter how we win? (This one can frequently provoke some unexpected personal revelations by the kids).

Do you think that these days just about everyone cheats to get what they want? (You may or may not be surprised by just how prevalent cheating is and by how many kids admit to doing it).

How much is “trust” worth? If it’s a choice between missing out on a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity or dishonestly exploiting a situation to your own personal advantage, how would you decide what to do? (The kids themselves will come up with dozens of hypothetical situations for this one).

Do you think it is ever okay to break a promise? (This can lead into some great discussions about our responsibility to other people when they are in trouble–e.g. when they are using drugs, hiding an eating disorder, etc.).

Would you choose character over conformity? (This one will stimulate some great discussions

 about peer pressure). 

These are just a few of the conversation-starters I use when I visit classes to talk to students about moral choices. The important thing is to get our kids thinking and talking. Remember that strong moral character does not come instinctively. It is learned.

Hopefully, these discussions about moral choices will help our young people develop a sense of direction and purpose to their lives which will result in more rewarding and more fulfilling experiences not only for them but also for those whose lives they may touch.

One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is help in developing a strong sense of self, so that they will not be unduly influenced by peer pressure. To stand firm for what they believe, they will need strong character, and we can help them develop strong character by helping them define their values and code of ethics when they are young, so that regardless of what others around them do and say, they will act according to their own conscience–even if sometimes this may mean standing alone.

And the stronger their character, the better for all of us!

Sandra McLeod Humphrey is a retired clinical psychologist, a character education consultant, and an award-winning author of seven middle-grade and young adult books.  She’s also the recipient of the National Character Education Center’s Award for Exemplary Leadership in Ethics Education (2000) and the 2005 Helen Keating Ott Award for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Literature. You can learn more about her books by visiting her Web site  at


Posted on July 1, 2011, in Children/Juvenile, Education, Health and Body, Parenting, Personal Growth, Teen. Bookmark the permalink. 35 Comments.

  1. Sandra, do you think the reason so many kids today are lacking direction is because their parents overdid everything for them? They didn't have a chance to find out for themselves what they wanted because other people (parents) were always telling them what to do.

  2. Great comment, Linda! When I look at the differences between the way our kids were raised and the way our grandkids are being raised, the whole social climate is entirely different. Modern technology is wonderful, but it also has its downside, and I would love to see the modern pace of our current society slow down a bit, so we can get back to some of our basic values.

  3. Very good article. It raises many good points. We, as parents and adults with children in our lives, must demonstrate positive role models. Our children need to be taught how to have tolerance and acceptance for everything around them, especially other people. Perhaps if they were taught to view each experience as a leaning one, there'd be less bully behavior.

  4. I have often found that many of the parents of the current 20 somethings and teens are more interested in being their kids' best friend instead of being a parent. If the parents don't show strong convictions and opinions regarding moral choices, then their example teaches the kids that there isn't a need for having a solid set of moral values. That's not to say that we should impose our morals on the kids. We can share our views with them, and live according to those values, and then the kids can see what we value. Unfortunately, the old adage of "first we abhor, then we tolerate, then we accept, and finally we embrace" is becoming all too true in our society today. A wise man once said," If we don't stand for something, then we'll stand for anything." That is where I see us heading in our politically correct society.

  5. Thanks for the wonderful and insightful comments, they're all right on target!

  6. Sandy-What a wonderful post! I wholeheartedly agree with your stance that we adults need to help our kids build bood moral muscle. And I absolutely LOVE the discussion questions you listed to help instilll critical thinking skills in young children. Thank you for the amazing work you do to help kids make good choices. You are one of my favorite authors!Trudy Ludwig

  7. Sandra, Kudos to you for posing such significant questions about moral education, a topic central also to my own work as a philosopher of education. I am wondering what your thoughts may be about the part that changing or unchanging gender dynamics within the political & spiritual economies of home life may have contributed to the deep moral malaise you have cited in your blog? Jane Roland Martin's THE SCHOOLHOME: RETHINKING SCHOOLS FOR CHANGING FAMILIES has proposed a new way of thinking about schooling with such moral questioning at the heart of it, via a curriculum focused on students' production of theater and newspaper. Like you, she is a keen critic of tolerance for peer brutality in schools. This is very important work you are doing. Someday I'd love to talk with you about your thoughts re her schoolhome's compatibility with your own aims.

  8. I looked up Jane's book, and I like the reference to John Dewey's quote that "when home changes radically, school must change as well." So true! Thanks so much for your comment, and I'm going to have to read Jane's book!

  9. Excellent article, and I especially like the list of conversation starters. There needs to be more emphasis on this type of social and moral education in schools and colleges, and less on just passing exams.

  10. Andy Anderson

    Sandy—where were you with your comments when I was involved in raising 4 children? But I can still profit from your ideas while spending time as a volunteer with second graders. I printed out your blog and will use a question a week as I meet with themThanksAndy Anderson

  11. Great article, it really gives the reader a lot to think about and question.

  12. Very good points Sandy, and some excellent openings that I'm sure lead to good discussions with kids. I worked in an elementary school for ten years and found that the kids really wanted to talk about important things, for the most part. They probably just don't have that many adults who are listening to their point of view. I'm glad you're opening up those lines of communication.

  13. Sandy,You have written an article that I truly believe to be invaluable, both to parents and teachers. When my grandchildren do something and I question them about their choice, my children tell me it is a different world than when I was raising them. We talk about this a good deal, and I am happy to say that my own children did a good job with their children. However, I do see exactly what you are talking about, and at I times feel helpless to aid their friends and even them sometimes. I hope this all makes sense. Your questions for discussion are right on the money. Thankk you for doing what you do, for doing it so well.

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