On Being and Doing Good


The juvenile level of our national conversation around moral development emerges anew with every high-profile act of violence. Bob Barr, then a congressman from Georgia, captured this in June 1999, after the Columbine High School shootings, when he declared to a House hearing on gun control that if high schools were allowed to post the Ten Commandments “we would not have the tragedies that bring us here today.”1 He apparently pictured Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris running down the halls of the school, guns blazing, until they spotted the Sixth Commandment and dropped their guns in horror at the realization that murder is wrong. Millions of Americans nodded their heads in sober agreement with Barr’s assessment of the problem and solution.

We act as if we have no idea where morality comes from, or worse yet, we think it comes from lists of memorized rules. In fact, we have a very solid picture of how moral development works. It works best when it is allied with critical thinking—when people are encouraged to find the reasons to be good—and worst when based on rote rule-following.

One of the leading figures in moral development research has been Dr. Larry Nucci. Nucci’s cross-cultural research through the Office for Studies in Moral Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that children in cultures around the world tend to reach key landmarks in moral development reliably and on time, regardless of what their parents do or don’t do. “Children’s understanding of morality is the same whether they’re of one religion, another religion or no religion,” he said.2

But Nucci’s work did point to one way in which parents can actually impede their children’s moral growth. “If it’s simply indoctrination,” he said, “it’s worse than doing nothing. It interferes with moral development.”

So the one practice that conservative religious thought insists is vitally important in moral education, the one thing we are begged and urged and warned to do—to teach unquestioning obedience to rules—turns out to be the most counterproductive thing we can do for our children’s moral development.

This echoes work by Joan Grusec in the 1990s that found that “parents who tend to be harshly authoritarian are less likely to be successful [as moral educators] than those who place substantial emphasis on reasoning.”3

In one of the most powerful studies for underlining this idea of moral reasoning, Samuel and Pearl Oliner interviewed 700 survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe. Some were “rescuers” (those who actively rescued victims of Nazi persecution), while others were “non-rescuers,” meaning they were either passive in the face of the persecution or actively involved in it.

The interviews focused on the survivors’ moral upbringing. Though virtually all subjects said morality was a high priority in their families of origin, the two groups experienced a markedly different approach to moral education. Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely to have grown up in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify reasoning as an element of their moral education. The Oliners said that parents of the group that ended up behaving most morally during the Nazi era had made an effort to explain the reasons for rules and ethical concepts.4

The best thing we can do for our kids is encourage them to actively engage in the expansion and refinement of their natural morality—asking questions, challenging the answers they are given, and working to understand the reasons to be good. Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at the University of Missouri, puts it just that clearly: “The most useful form of character education encourages children to think for themselves.”5

Moral development is a common topic of discussion in my nonreligious parenting workshops. Few of the parents are genuinely worried that the lack of religion will hinder their children’s ethical development—instead, they are looking for ways to explain to their own parents, friends, and neighbors that a lack of religion does not equate to a lack of ethics.

But there is sometimes a tiny sense of unease, especially in former religious fundamentalists, a feeling that humanity is inherently wicked and that some kind of external arbiter is required to keep the pot from boiling over. For those parents, moral-development research should be reassuring. Put kids in a prosocial family in a prosocial culture and they tend to turn out just fine. We are wired up, however imperfectly, for cooperation and fairness.

A University of Zurich study published in the journal Nature in 2008 underlines this. Kids three to four are almost universally selfish, after which a “strong sense of fairness” reliably develops, usually by seven or eight, except in cases where kids lack the most basic prosocial support at home.6

Studies like these can help us relax about the moral question.

If you think about it, it could hardly be otherwise. Imagine two Neolithic populations, one with a genetic predisposition to selfishness and mutual annihilation, the other with a tendency toward cooperation. Which of those will still be around 10 generations later?

So instead of beating back some innate depravity, we need to encourage our kids to actively engage in the refinement of their own natural morality—asking questions, challenging the answers they are given, and working to understand the reasons to be good.

So the next time a religious parent looks at you with that look—you know the one—and asks, “How are you going to raise your kids to be moral without religion?” you will calmly reply, “By avoiding moral indoctrination, of course, which research has shown to be the least effective way to encourage moral development. And what’s your plan?”

This chapter begins with an essay on raising ethical children by Dr. Marvin Berkowitz, one of the most prominent character-education experts in the United States, which is followed by my thoughts on corporal punishment in “Spare the Rod—and Spare Me the Rest.”

Next come insights on the complex concept of evil from one of the great advocates of developing reflective thinking in children, Dr. Gareth Matthews. Dr. Jean Mercer, a developmental psychologist, then describes the process of moral development as currently understood.

This chapter introduces the first of several poems by nonbeliever and secular parent Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg. Yip authored all of the lyrics and much of the screenplay of The Wizard of Oz, making in the process one of the greatest contributions of the past century to the imaginative landscape of modern childhood.

We conclude this diverse chapter with Shannon and Matt Cherry’s thoughts on raising their young twin girls to embrace the twin virtues of pride and respect—or, you might say, self-respect and other-respect—followed by the essay “Seven Secular Virtues,” which proposes a set of admirable qualities to which secularists might aspire, including a few that don’t always come easy, and British philosopher Margaret Knight’s argument that the deflection of questions children so often experience around religious questions is just plain “bad intellectual training.”


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