My first teaching job was with a group of adorable six and seven-year-olds in Saratoga, California. I was also working on my doctorate at the same time and was fascinated with Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg's new research on moral development.

He believed morality is acquired in stages and could be increased by posing moral dilemmas to kids to stretch their moral reasoning.

So I read everything I could on his theory and began using his ideas with my students. After several lessons I noticed a few seemed to have a better understanding of good and bad behavior and were responding to my questions with the "correct" moral answers. I was ecstatic:  I thought my lectures were making a major difference on my students' moral growth.

My excitement though quickly faded: The next day my principal notified me that he'd caught my two best "moral talkers" throwing rocks at a neighbor's house during recess and broke a window. He was especially upset that the boys couldn't understand why their actions were wrong and showed little remorse for the damage they caused. 

I was bewildered: these were the same kids who always impressed me in our moral discussions. They sure had all the right answers and sounded like they knew right from wrong. So how could they be acting immorally if they were talking so morally? My discussion with them taught me a lesson I've never forgotten.

"The rocks were just there and we didn't have anything to do, so we just started throwing them," explained one boy. "We didn't think the window would break."

The second boy admitted: "I guess if it were my house I'd be kind of mad, but walls were really dirty. If the window didn't break the man would never know that we were throwing rocks at his house."


These two kids sure had me fooled! I quickly realized my mistake: I assumed because these kids talked morally, they would also act morally. Was I ever wrong!

They also taught me that sounding as though you have a strong conscience is no guarantee for good behavior. After all, how we choose to behave really does speak louder than what we say with our words. Just make sure you don't make the same mistake with your kids.

Knowing the right and decent way to act and then acting in that way should be the only test to determine whether or not your child has developed a strong moral compass.

It's up to us to make sure our kids' moral compasses are solid and in place so they really will talk as well and act right and do so with or without our guidance.


Five Ways to Build Strong Conscience in Kids

1. You are your children's first and most powerful moral teacher, so make sure the moral behaviors your kids are picking up from you are ones that you want them to copy.

2. Look for moral issues to talk about as they come up; so your child can hear your moral beliefs, and you can assess his moral reasoning and stretch him to the next level.

3. Take an active stand against influences toxic to your child's moral development, such as certain television shows, movies, music, video games, and Internet websites. Plainly explain your concerns to your child, set standards, and then stick to them.