Raising Ethical Children

For some years, I had the pleasure and privilege of serving on the Advisory Board of the Institute for Character Education at Boston University’s School of Education, which gave me the opportunity to become acquainted with a wide array of theories about children’s ethical development.

I would like to humbly submit my own taxonomy of ethical formation for educators that I think is at once simple and clear.

The key to ethical growth, I believe, is one’s relationship to the needs and rights of others.

Infants are, of course, adorable for their innocence, but they are not yet ethically realized beings. In fact, neonates are narcissists, perhaps even properly considered solipsists: They consider themselves a universe unto themselves; they even have difficulty experiencing anything or anyone around as other than extensions of themselves. Innocent and adorable, yes, but also supremely selfish. This, of course, is cute when age-appropriate in an infant but unseemly in an older child, let alone an adult.

The path from ethical infancy to adulthood, I would submit, is precisely the journey, sequentially, (1) from solipsism to recognizing the existence of others; (2) to recognizing that others can impinge upon one’s wants and desires, whether one wills or no; (3) to recognizing that others have moral claims that are independent of one’s own, followed by (4) to an eventual acceptance that the moral claims of one’s fellows are of equal weight to one’s own; and, finally, (5) to a state attained in some measure by every good parent but perhaps only fully realized in the few who achieve sainthood or display true heroism, the highest stage of ethical actualization, that of recognizing and acting upon a capacity in oneself to privilege the moral claims of others even over one’s own needs – i.e., to be self-sacrificial on behalf of others.

This journey can and must be taught. And schools play a critical contributory role in that endeavor.

At a minimum, every adult should live and operate on level 3; moreover, I believe every adult is capable of living on level 4, and society is well served, indeed, if our schools help all to achieve that. Level 5 may be unattainable for most people as a comprehensive modus operandi, but, as I suggest, all good parents and spouses must achieve the self-sacrificial ideal, in many circumstances, with regularity.

I propose that schools would do well to focus their character education programs specifically on getting every child to level 4 in preparation for adulthood as an ethical participant in the social fabric. Perhaps there could be no greater service for educators.


Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI.