Raising Moral Kids without Gods: The Wisdom Commons

Happy ChildrenImage by chrissuderman via FlickrBy Valerie Tarico

As parents, we want our children to be happy. We want them to achieve great things. But we also want them to be good people. We want to be as proud of their kindness, generosity and integrity as we are of their achievements. How do we help them get there?

Moral development

Each religion teaches that it is the source of morality. Christians perceive themselves as "a light on the hill" without which the world would fall into moral anarchy. As a freethinker, I have had people ask -- how can you raise good children without religion?

In one sense, this question is almost silly. Research shows us that healthy human children come into the world primed to become moral members of society, just like they come into the world primed to acquire language. Moral emotions, such as empathy, shame and guilt, begin to show their presence during the toddler years regardless of a child's cultural or religious context. A toddler may pat an injured peer, or offer a grubby toy to an adult who is distressed. A preschooler may hide in the closet to cover a transgression. As a child learns to think, moral emotions are joined by moral reasoning. By age 5 or 6, they can argue long and loud about fairness.

And yet, kids don’t learn to be decent human beings without adult input any more than they learn to communicate without adult input. For a child to grow into an honest adult, for example, we have to model honesty, expect it and explicitly teach it. Traditionally, religious institutions are the place where we talk explicitly about moral concerns and ideas. Despite frequent hypocrisy, churches legitimate the idea that there is such a thing as moral community, and that it matters. So for parents who are not church goers, the question of where and how to have these conversations with our children is real.

Virtue and morality

Research shows us that healthy human children come into the world primed to become moral members of society, just like they come into the world primed to acquire language. One way to think about moral development is that bad behavior is simply the absence of virtue. When a child hurts another, it may be that their internal sense of kindness, patience or self-control has fallen short. When they sneak or steal, it means their internal sense of honesty wasn’t as strong as the external temptation.

Rather than making the bad behavior itself the focus of our attention and conversations with them, we can put our energy toward helping them to grow good qualities. This is not to say that bad behavior never needs labels and consequences. Rather, every time our child “crashes” is an opportunity to explain and encourage the virtues we are trying to cultivate.

Buried amidst the superstition and sanctified tribalism of our inherited traditions are nuggets of wisdom that can help us in this endeavour. Our ancestors have struggled for millenia to answer questions about good and how to live in moral community with each other. If we approach these traditions knowing we have a responsibility to pick and choose, we can glean the timeless useful nuggets and simply leave the rest aside. As individuals and parents, we don't have to start from scratch just because we seek to live in the light of reason and to raise our children there.

The Wisdom Commons

The Wisdom Commons, is an interactive Web project that seeks to elevate universal ethics, or our shared moral core -- the ethical values that bridge across secular and religious wisdom traditions. It offers parents and educators a new tool for nurturing positive character traits. The Wisdom Commons is structured around a set of virtues that human beings generally agree are important, such as generosity, compassion and courage. As a way of promoting these virtues (and showcasing how widely they are valued), the site houses a library of more than 3,000 quotes, stories, proverbs, poems and essays from around the world. The Commons includes "god-talk" because when our ancestors valued a character quality, they often expressed this through the voice of a god or demi-god (e.g. Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself). But it also includes supernaturalism guidelines barring member/contributors from promoting otherworldly personages and ideas. The site is about what we humans can agree on, and supernaturalism is the topic of vast disagreement.

Once registered, you can click your favorite bits of wisdom to collect them in a “Personal Wisdom Page.” Soon you’ll be able to turn your collection into Mom’s or Dad’s Book of Common Wisdom, a print-on-demand book in which you can mix your collection with photos and a personal dedication. One easy way to find bits that are meaningful to you is to sign up for the “Daily Wisbit” sent out to members who request it.

Ideas for parents
  1. Choose a “virtue of the week” to discuss at the dinner table. Why does this virtue matter? How is it honored in your family’s spiritual or cultural tradition? How have family members demonstrated this virtue recently? When have they seen it in other people?
  2. Ask each child to find a quote that they really like. Have them read it to other family members and explain why they like it.
  3. Make a game of reading bits of wisdom aloud together and giving each one a rating, thus prompting whatever discussion is needed to reach a family agreement or average.
  4. Find a special quote each week that reflects your family’s values. Click the printer icon after the quote to print it out as an 8½ x 11 poster. (Available in late January.) Put it on the fridge.
  5. Create a Wisdom Page and begin storing bits of wisdom you want to share with your kids. Alternately, create a shared family Wisdom Page together, with input from everyone.

When our kids start leading us

After watching me work on the Wisdom Commons with a team of software engineers and the wonderful volunteers who contributed the first 1,000 bits of wisdom to the site, my middle-school-age daughters, Bri and Marla, gave me a birthday present. Each of them adopted a virtue (justice and aspiration, respectively). They registered to create wisdom pages of their own and spent a morning researching their chosen virtues and entering quotes and poems they liked.

Then they went back to their other interests, or so I thought. Imagine my surprise and delight last month when I clicked on my “Daily Wisbit” email from the Commons and found a poem about confidence, secretly penned by Bri.

Our children not only learn from us about what it means to be good, loving, effective people, they also teach us — if we are willing to be taught. But it’s up to us to open the conversation.

Valerie Tarico, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author in Seattle, and founder of WisdomCommons.org. She is also the mother of two middle-school-age girls.

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