A Denton County boy named Blake Leonard made headlines not too long ago after he found a bank bag containing $4,000 in cash and checks in a parking lot. He immediately told his dad they should turn it in, and the pair headed off to the Flower Mound Police Department to do just that. In media interviews, the then-11-year-old said simply that it was the right thing to do.
We’d all like to think our children would have the same reaction. But kids are … kids. Much is made of the fact that the area of the brain that controls higher functions doesn’t fully develop until adulthood. (And even so, there are plenty of adults who wouldn’t have done what Blake did.) So how do we foster moral courage in our kiddos?
Begin introducing moral courage early
A child’s actions don’t need to make the news in order to demonstrate that they’re living a “do the right thing” kind of life. They can show honesty, integrity, kindness and related qualities in their day-to-day activities. Colleyville mom Michelle Carter takes great pride in 11-year-old daughter Priscilla’s empathy for children around her. “She always stands up for the new kids in school,” says Carter. “We’ve moved around, so she knows how it feels. Priscilla makes sure to reach out and talk to them. One day, she saw a new girl at recess alone, and she went and talked to her so she wouldn’t be by herself.”
Carter thinks her daughter came by that care for others naturally. “Priscilla has always noticed people in the world who need our help,” she explains. Still, it’s a quality Carter and her husband praise and encourage. “We try to foster those emotions in our children and give them the tools to help others.” For their family, that means regular volunteer work. (Carter established the group Little Helpers of Dallas/Fort Worth after Priscilla sought ways to contribute to the community.)
Volunteering is one way—and a great way—to start developing these characteristics in your child, according to Sam McCage, Ph.D., manager of behavioral health at Cook Children’s. But he notes that before kids can even walk, you have a job to do. Children begin absorbing lessons about behavior “from infancy,” says McCage. “Even babies pick up on tone of voice or tension in the room. While they are still nonverbal, they can see and sense how we react to situations.”
As your little grows, there are a variety of ways to introduce and reinforce concepts such as respecting different opinions and making a positive impact on others. McCage suggests reading your preschooler picture books that have an element of moral courage (see sidebar at X for some of our picks); involving the whole family in volunteer projects, as the Carters do; discussing scenes on TV where honesty and integrity come up, and asking your child what they would do; and with teenagers, watching the news and talking about what you see. It’s all about taking advantage of daily activities. “[Look] for teachable moments,” McCage explains. “It is habit-forming and will come more naturally to them as they mature.”
How kids can stand up for what’s right
Toni Randle-Cook’s 7-year-old daughter has no problem intervening when she sees an injustice. “Ansley saw a little boy using a toy alligator to hit another child. She approached the boy and told him, ‘Stop!’” recalls the Arlington mom. In this case, it didn’t have the intended effect: “The boy turned around and hit her!” says Randle-Cook. “Ansley then took it above the bully and went to tell the teacher.”
Letting a trusted adult know what’s happening is one of the recommendations of the Anti-Defamation League when it comes to being an ally and not a bystander in a bad situation. “We have to share with our kids that being an ally isn’t always easy, but it’s important,” says Sherasa Thomas, the ADL’s education director for the Texoma region. Thomas offers these tips for children seeking to be an ally to someone being bullied:
- Support the target, whether you know them or not. “Show compassion and encouragement to those who are targets of bullying behavior by asking if they’re OK, going with them to get help and letting them know you are there for them,” notes Thomas.
- Don’t participate. “This is a really easy way to be an ally because it doesn’t require you to actually do anything, just to not do certain things—like laugh, stare or cheer for the bad behavior,” says Thomas. By not participating, “you are sending a message that the behavior is not funny and you are not OK with it.”
- Tell aggressors to stop. “If it feels safe, tell the person behaving disrespectfully to cut it out,” Thomas says.
- Inform an adult. “Sometimes you may need extra help to stop the bullying. Telling an adult when you see someone engaged in bullying is never ‘tattling’ or ‘snitching,’” states Thomas. “And remember, bullying happens online and through cell phones too. Online and offline, do your part to help others.”
Of course, the best way to ensure your child has these sensibilities is to do your part as a parent. McCage explains, “You can teach with your words, but children will learn best if they see you model honesty and integrity, inclusion and standing up for what is right.”
By the Book
Children’s books are a great way to get conversations going with your kiddos about topics of moral courage. Here are some of our favorites:
- Ruthie and the (Not So) Teeny Tiny Lie by Laura Rankin: A little fox finds a treasure that she’s desperate to keep, so she claims that it’s hers—and discovers what a guilty conscience feels like.
- The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig; illustrations by Patrice Barton: This story encourages children to notice the quiet kids who might get overlooked. It includes discussion points and other recommended reading.
- How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham: This book shows how one kid can make a difference.
- A Bike like Sergio’s by Maribeth Boelts; illustrations by Noah Z. Jones: When Ruben finds a $100 bill, a new bike is finally in reach. What will he do?
- The Spiffiest Giant in Town by Julia Donaldson; illustrations by Axel Scheffler: A giant in need acquires new clothes—but learns that generosity has rewards.
Image courtesy of iStock.