Raising Ethical and Compassionate Teens
Experts say that the biggest moral mistakes that teens are making today are lying, cheating and stealing, which are all acts of deception. Our culture subtly communicates to teens that the ends justifies the means – to get ahead, do whatever you need to do to overcome the obstacles to your success. Parents should pay attention to the messages that our teens are receiving. There are ways to raise ethical and compassionate teens, even in our competitive society. Below is a list of common mistakes parents make and a list of actions they can take to ensure their teen develops into people who can make their own choices with integrity.
Mistakes Parents Make
If your goal is to raise a child who is ethical and compassionate, then experts recommend you avoid these common mistakes:
Do not rescue. Rescuing your child means that you don’t allow them to make decisions to solve their own dilemmas and/or feel the consequences of their actions when their choices don’t go well. Many parents rush in to smooth over their teen’s problems, which only lets your teen know that you don’t believe they are capable of handling their own life.
Do not reward or bargain. Many well-meaning parents, schools, and organizations offer rewards to the teen or class that raises the most money for some charity. While rewarding children for doing something good seems like a great idea, it can actually deprive your teen of the joy of caring for others. If you want to raise your teen to be compassionate, then you should allow them to feel the experience of being helpful to others with no reward for themselves other than knowing they made a difference in someone else’s life. Do not emphasize what your teen will gain from being caring, but focus on the impact of their actions.
Do not blame. It’s hard to accept that our teen has made a mistake and to let him/her live with the consequences. In fact, it is so difficult that many parents refuse to accept it and look for someone to blame when things go wrong. The problem is that, when we blame others, we are never accountable for our actions. Part of becoming a responsible and ethical adult is accepting the consequences of our actions.
Do not violate ethics. We sometimes make mistakes in our own behavior, thinking they are minor or trivial actions, and not realize that we are teaching our child to act unethically. For example, have you ever eaten a “sample” from a store’s candy bin without paying, or bought a movie ticket for a “child under twelve” even though your child is older? Have you driven faster than the speed limit while your teen was sitting next to you or begged your teen to tell your boss that you’re not home when he calls? These may seem small, but they demonstrate to your teen that you do not value honesty.
Do not rely on punishment. Generally, if our teen does something wrong, we punish them. It is the standard parenting tactic. However, in the case of moral development, punishment does not always teach them why something is wrong or help them solve their problems. If your teen lies, for example, make sure you give them insight into their actions and what effect they had on someone else. Take the time to talk through the issue when your teen steps outside of your values.
Actions Parents Should Take
Ultimately, if you want to teach your teen to be ethical and compassionate, you need to take some definitive actions that model the behavior you want to instill in your teen. Here are some tips:
Define your values. Does your child know what you stand for and why? Research shows that children are more likely to adopt their parents’ beliefs when the parents have clearly identified values. If you’re not sure what you stand for, then begin by making a list of all the qualities and moral beliefs that matter most to you. Examples of values you might want your teen to develop are honesty, compassion, forgiveness, hope, discipline, work ethic, creativity, tolerance, or strength. You can find many lists of important qualities by searching for “important values to live by” in your web browser. Narrow the list of values down to your top three, and then use those values to guide how you raise your teen.
Walk your talk. Teens learn more from watching your actions than from listening to your words, so make sure you are a great role model! When your teen hears your casual comments to your friends or sees the choices that you make throughout the day, they are witnessing your true moral code. Therefore, you might try asking yourself each day what your child may have learned from you. Additionally, try to surround your teen with other people who are good examples of integrity.
Use everyday examples. Use TV shows, news events, and situations at school or work to bring up moral dilemmas and discuss them with your teen. Listen to their point of view, but also share how you feel about the issue and why. It is also a good idea to share examples of heroes who displayed moral courage, either from history, such as Rosa Parks and Abraham Lincoln, or from local examples you’ve seen or heard about. It’s important to bring up current positive role models that youth can relate to.
Ask questions. Ask teens to consider how another person feels when they are making a decision so that they can develop compassion. Use situations in real life, books or movies to stretch your teen’s moral development. Good questions to ask are, “How would you feel in that situation?” or “What would happen if…?” or “Do you think that was the right thing to do?”
Teach assertive skills. No matter how much you have worked on teaching your values to your teen, if your teen doesn’t know how to be assertive, they may fall victim to intense peer pressure despite their beliefs. They need to be able to stand up for themselves. We encourage you to read our previous blog, “5 Ways Parents Can Teach Assertiveness to Teens”.
You are a powerful influence on your teen! While it may not seem like your teen is very interested in what you have to say or do, your words and actions will shape the values, habits, beliefs and morals your child will have for the rest of their life. Do not take this parental responsibility lightly. Nurture, teach, influence, and model the behavior you desire, and you have the potential to raise a child you can be proud of – a person who stands up for what’s right and acts in an ethical and compassionate way.