How to Teach Your Toddler Ethics

Julie Ryan Evans

EthicsSometimes in the midst of just feeding and clothing and making sure our children don't kill themselves, it's hard to step back and think about the bigger picture, like the kind of person you want them to be.

But slowing down and taking time to really focus on the lessons you want them to learn and values you want to instill in them, instead of just hoping they absorb them, is important. 

Ian James Corlett did just that when he started a Monday night "Family Fun Time" with his family in which he told his children stories with ethics lessons featuring two characters -- Elliott and Lucy. He eventually wrote them down and has captured them in his new book, E Is for Ethics.

I caught up with Ian to talk about the importance of teaching children ethics and tips on how to do it.

Why is teaching children ethics so important?

Because children grow up to be adults. We've all encountered adults that act badly. We all know that bad behavior can usually be traced to childhood. Kids that have great relationships and communication with their parents usually are pretty decent people. There are all sorts of reasons people do bad things and it has nothing to do with money, the lack of it, or the abundance of it. It's time spent with our little ones that is the key. Time is a currency that knows no boundaries. Rich or poor, we all have 24 hours in a day. It's how you use it with your kids that matter. The formative years really matter.

How young can you start teaching children about ethics?

It began when our kids were just able to sit up and pay attention, so that means YOUNG. Literally we started when they were about 2. The stories were very different for younger kids, but the idea of sitting down as a family became the key. The kids actually looked forward to Monday nights. 

What are the first steps?

I recommend having a schedule. If you set a time, like Monday after dinner, you're more likely to keep it. And when you're telling a story with a "value" or "moral," make sure you don't use your own kids as the characters. If you set the stories with imaginary characters, kids (and adults) can relate more objectively. And keep it fun. "Family Fun Time" should never be "Family Morals, Values, and Indoctrination Time."

But even more importantly, live what you teach. If you're interested in teaching your kids ethics, the easiest way is to simply teach by example. Kids are born copycats. 

What are the easiest concepts for children to grasp? What are the most difficult?

Hmmm. Honesty and truthfulness were probably the easiest to grasp. Those seem to be part of our DNA. Not that we all exercise them, but we always know what the truth is. 

Empathy was tough. And strangely enough so is fairness. But for different reasons. Fairness is difficult because it isn't always black and white. Often it depends on what side of the issue you're on whether you felt you've been dealt with fairly or not. And empathy is just hard to explain. But the feeling is easy. Kids innately understand a lot of these feelings, but learning the words attached to them can be a little more complex. That was why I decided to tell stories around the topic rather than clinically trying to teach them these ideas in a vacuum.

How do you know if your children are absorbing what you're teaching, and will it stick as they grow and change?

There are no guarantees that ANYTHING parents teach their kids will stay with them obviously, but you have to try. Kids absorb LIFE. The bigger message is time spent. Spend time with your kids. Heck I don't even care if it's doing something frivolous like playing video games together! But time spent means you will have some kind of relationship with them and that is the foundation to counteract the negative stuff.

Parents have to make time for their kids and not treat them like accessories or abdicate the responsibilities to teach them right from wrong to others. Teachers, caregivers, rabbis, pastors, and nannies all play useful roles, but it's up to us parents to be actively involved in building good humans for the future. And that starts when your kids are very young. I believe that with all my heart.

Have you started teaching your toddler ethics? What methods do you use?

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