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Looking at Values:

Being Ethical

Thinking About Being Ethical

Definition: Behavior is guided by a moral code or set of principles. This code evolves from determining what is right and what is wrong.
Behavior reflecting
the value:
She finds a ten-dollar bill in the parking lot outside the grocery store and takes it inside to the clerk to be returned to its rightful owner. When asked to help tidy her grandmother's home, she refrains from snooping into the drawers, cupboards, boxes, and personal papers lying around.
Knowledge and
skills needed:
She needs to have a clear understanding of the moral code or set of principles. She has to be able to apply these principles to everyday situations. To do so, she needs to be aware of the situation, know various ways to respond, and be able to assess which responses (behavior) are right based on the moral code.
Insights about the
Parents need to define the moral code or set of principles that constitutes ethical behavior for them. In the United States, ethical behavior is often assumed to be based on the effects of one's behavior on other people. Parents who want their child to be ethical must teach her the moral code that exemplifies the behavior they think is right.

A child who is to grow up living according to a moral code must understand that behavior has consequences.

Value present
at birth?

Teaching or Preserving Being Ethical
Baby: Babies cannot comprehend an abstract concept such as a code of behavior. At this stage, they experience what is good behavior, their parents' love and nurturing. They experience consequences of their actions. For example, if you lose your balance while trying to sit or stand up, you fall over. Most toddlers twist around so that they fall on their bottoms, something their experience tells them is less painful. All their learning is based on experience.
Toddler/Preschooler: A child this age is just beginning to learn the "right" way to behave. Much of this learning comes from social situations. Society in the United States has some agreements about what is right, such as sharing, settling disagreements, and being concerned for others. Through day to day experience, a child learns a code of ethical behavior for social situations. She is not learning abstract principles at this point. She is learning concrete ways of behaving and her learning must be guided by adults.
School age/Teenage: When a child reaches school age (6 or 7 years), she begins to understand abstract rules or codes of behavior. At this age she will look at the code very rigidly: a behavior is either right or wrong. She will experiment living by the code. She will encounter other codes of behavior that are different from what she is taught at home. These differences will push her to examine different codes, a process that reaches complex abstract levels during the teenage years. Teenagers continuously question the code of ethics by which they have been raised and frequently will try out some of the beliefs of other ethical codes they see. Finally, in adulthood, most people have evolved the code of behavior by which they will live.

Influences on Learning to be Ethical
Needs: A child's need to feel loved and accepted provides strong motivation for her to follow the code of behavior her parents teach.
Temperament: A child who is impulsive often finds it difficult to live by a code consistently. She tends to act before she thinks.
Learning style: A child who learns by doing needs many experiences that involve ethical behavior and plenty of opportunities to discuss her experiences.

Reflections about Being Ethical
Influence of other

Children and adults both have difficulty being honest when they have broken a moral code. For a child, the strain of knowing she will be punished for her behavior if she tells the truth about it leads her to lie, which may also be against the code. If parents can focus on other ways she might have behaved instead of dwelling on her misbehavior, she will learn more acceptable behavior, with less fear of punishment and less inclination to lie.

Any particular value that speaks broadly to how life is best lived can provide the moral code needed to live life in an ethical manner. Caring is such a value.

New thinking
resulting from
A common problem in our culture is to speak of ethical behavior, assuming that everyone is agreement about the kind of behavior expected. To be effective in teaching children a set of principles to follow, parents must identify the moral code on which they base their own ethical behavior.

Adapted from Using Your Values to Raise Your Child to Be an Adult You Admire by Harriet Heath, Ph.D.

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Last updated May 05, 2008