In junior high, I remember studying with classmates who disrespected and treated their peers and teachers rudely. To them, harmful jokes sounded funny, dishonest acts were appealing, and disobeying a teacher seemed brave. Student who didn’t look up to these actions were seen as too serious, boring, silly. Many teachers spoke against this sort of behavior, but their lectures only made things worse. They wanted to do something, to help students understand the value of responsibility, honesty and dedication, but students didn’t take them seriously. This is a common struggle, and now, perhaps more than some decades ago, schools are missing key ingredients on how to teach moral values to kids: appropriate punishment, early action, and examples. The challenge isn’t the human difficulty of following a set of moral conducts as much as it is the approach to teaching it.
Starting moral teaching early is a great way to ensure that kids actually learn. The older they get, the more challenging it is to persuade children to change their behavior – just like it’s easier to change a young adult’s mind than an elderly one’s. If children start learning what it means to share, help, respect, and be polite from kindergarten, chances are they will take these ideas as models to base their actions on. Also, if a child fails to behave well, it is easier to demonstrate their fault by pointing out a rule that’s always been present rather than a new one.
But no matter how early these ideas are implemented, children will not learn moral values unless there are consequences. Why not steal a classmate’s lunch if there will be no punishment? Why not disrupt the entire class by talking and laughing if the teacher will simply ignore it? Students should be punished every time they misbehave, according to the degree of misbehavior. If a student steals a kid’s lunch, he should spend the next few lunchtimes in detention; if another student curses and offends others frequently, she should get a couple of points off from her final grades. All people, young or old, learn better when there are consequences to deal with. Lecturing does not work because the information enters through one ear and goes out the other; but missing lunchtime, for instance, is a real consequence that requires more effort to find time to spend with friends, and losing grade points urges one to find ways to recover them.
Students should also be rewarded if they behave exceptionally well because they act as role models to everyone else. Having someone to look up to is key to influencing students to embrace moral values. A student who’s rewarded for his generosity or dedication feels inspired to maintain his behavior and encourages others to do the same. In addition, teachers could also try different activities to exemplify positive behavior to students, like role-playing. An elementary student may be put in the shoes of a boy who’s bullied and understand the pain that bullying inflicts.
Some people may think that schools shouldn’t have to teach students moral values, and that such things are either personal or eventually become resolved as the child grows up. But failing to pass these ideas to kids have worse repercussions than we may imagine at first. Business schools, for example, have a hard time implementing ethics courses, as it is particularly challenging to try to change a graduate student’s ethical habits and views. The lack of proper ethics teaching in Business schools has been identified as one of the causes of the economic crash of 2008: higher-ups were too greedy, selfish, and unscrupulous, and Business schools did not require most of their students to take ethics courses. But even if they did, personal habits and views are significantly harder to change in a couple of years, once already established.
Children spend most their time at school. Not only should they be learning arithmetic and reading books, but also building character, understanding the demand and benefits of becoming honest, fair, and empathetic. In the long run, society benefits.