Most of us want an ethical and happy society around us, so we want our children to be kind and constructive members of the society, too. On the other hand, it seems many parents expect their kids to develop morals spontaneously, without investing too much time into it. It is still rare to see parents approach the teaching of ethical values ​​patiently, calmly, and considerately. Shouting, belittling, impatience, even insults are much more common. In this way, children are taught to follow rules, but not why those rules have value.

When we grow up, it can be difficult to remember how we felt and thought as kids. It seems even harder to open a couple of books and explore what is realistic to expect at what age. Younger children can feel (limited) empathy, understand the consequences in the form of reward and punishment, and follow the parental example. But a more abstract understanding and a broader perspective of moral values ​​develops on average only during adolescence, and this too is often a slow and conflicted process.

We would all like our children to be reasonable, considerate and compassionate, but it’s easy to forget that neither we at their age had the necessary experience nor the level of development. Of course, some children have more innate empathy and more desire to cooperate than others, but even such children take many years to reach a level of understanding parents often consider self-evident. The development of the human brain in all its complexity cannot be accelerated by force – but it can be stimulated and guided.

Children who are taught moral values ​​in an authoritarian, simplistic way often continue to do so as adults. They may even be unconsciously afraid to broaden their perspective and adjust their judgment to a complex situation. They can learn to ignore empathy and understanding in favor of rigid rules, especially if their parents did the same. Some of these children may develop hidden defiance and unhealthy resistance to any discipline, which may make their lives more difficult later. Perhaps most importantly, such children lose trust in their parents and will not want to turn to them when faced with more difficult and complex dilemmas.

On the other hand, children need guidance because without parental influence they can develop more slowly and randomly, especially considering all the toxic influences they may be exposed to through the mass media. But that guidance needs to be patient, flexible, and interesting, given the child’s desire for fun and limited attention span. Don’t expect quick results ; always keep in mind that you are sowing seeds that may take years to grow into a tree.

It is normal for children to experiment with some unpleasant behaviors sometimes, in order to explore themselves and the the consequences of such behavior. Experience is the fastest way to learn. It would be a mistake to take this as a sign that things have gone wrong and that the child has a bad character. Maybe you too used to spray people with water from the window, or provoked others in various ways, maybe you stole something … simply out of lack of awareness and understanding, or out of a desire for excitement, rather than out of deliberate malice.


Here are some guidelines on how to encourage development of ethical values in children:

      • Lead by example, especially by your behavior towards them. It’s a good idea to briefly and simply explain the motivation of your behavior (I want to understand you, I want you to feel good), as well as ask them how they feel about some of your behavior. Likewise, try to explain the feelings of others to them succinctly and simply. Children who experience understanding and compassion will learn to appreciate their value.


      • Similarly, practice maximum integrity in communicating with children.Don’t lie to them, evade answers, behave unpredictably or manipulatively. Even if you think they wouldn’t understand the truth, still try to explain it to them in a simpler way. Kids usually find it easier to accept an honest explanation that they don’t fully understand, but feel that your nonverbal communication is sincere, than when they feel you are pulling yourself out and distracting them. And they might surprise you with their understanding sometimes.
        If you are unable to be completely fair in a certain situation, admit it and explain to them why. Acknowledge your flaws and mistakes, don’t pretend to be perfect or that you can’t be wrong. If you are proud of your integrity, children will learn that too.


      • Focus more on praising desirable behavior rather than criticizing the undesirable, though the latter is sometimes necessary too. Explain why some behavior is desirable or not, rather than just calling it good or bad. Be concise, don’t give kids long lectures that would bore them.


      • Rewards and punishments are sometimes necessary, but avoid applying them excessively. If you do, children may learn to seek external motivation more than internal.


      • Allow your kids (within reasonable and appropriate limits) to make mistakes and experience consequences – especially if they ignore your warnings. For example, allow a milder fall, scratch, ridicule, or if they hit someone, to be hit back. Don’t rub their noses in it, but calmly ask them what they could learn from it.


      • When you see someone behaving in an unreasonable or reckless way, ask your children (not necessarily on the spot) what they think about it, and then – briefly – explain to them how and why it is not a good choice (e.g. what the world would look like if all people behaved that way). You can also have such conversations about movies that children watch, but be careful not to overdo it and stop when you notice that they are losing focus.


    • Play with your kids games which encourage cooperation, self-control, and empathy (You can find a lot of ideas online). Most games teach children at least to follow agreed upon rules, tolerate frustration, and resolve conflicts. You can explain to young kids that they can’t change rules in the middle of a game, and that the sky will not fall on their heads if they lose. With older children, you can organize “ brainstorming ” or debates on various issues. It’s best to mix ethical, communication, and emotional problems with practical and even humorous problems, for balance. If you want to further motivate the kids, you can (occasionally) promise a prize for the best idea or the best argument in the debate.


    It will be easier with some children, harder with others, but this is true for all: make haste slowly!


Related articles:

Children and Money – Setting Boundaries

The Basic Fissure in a Personality

How To Live With Integrity


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Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

Kosjenka Muk

I’m an Integrative Systemic Coaching trainer and special education teacher. I taught workshops and gave lectures in 10 countries, and helped hundreds of people in 20+ countries on 5 continents (on- and offline) find solutions for their emotional patterns. I wrote the book “Emotional Maturity In Everyday Life” and a related series of workbooks.

Some people ask me if I do bodywork such as massage too – sadly, the only type of massage I can do is rubbing salt into wounds.  😉

Just kidding. I’m actually very gentle. Most of the time.

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