“Do As I Say, Not As I Do” or Raising Kids with Moral Intelligence

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.

(1 Cor. 8:9-13)

All through my elementary years and high school, I knew two guys, Bob and Brian, who came from similar homes. Both of them had demanding parents—demanding fathers in particular. Yet neither of them seemed to respect their dads. And neither of them showed any guilt about shoplifting. I remember watching Bob and Brian use intimidation to get what they wanted from other kids, and both Bob and Brian served time in juvenile detention centers.

As we grew up, we drifted apart. But many years after school, I learned what few people knew about these two guys’ homes. Both of their dads were authoritarian, but both men lacked authority in their son’s lives. Both fathers demanded strict behaviors from their sons then failed to follow through in their own behavior. Both men were abusive alcoholics and beat their sons. One of the fathers was a highly regarded community figure and publicly admired. Behind his own front door, his family was crumbling under him.

In his book, The Moral Lives of Children, Dr. Robert Coles defines our conscience as our “moral intelligence.” More simply, he defines moral intelligence as how we behave—“moral behavior tested by life, lived out in the course of our everyday existence.”

PBS NewsHour’s David Gergen interviewed Coles several years ago and asked him how to encourage morality in our students, our children, and ourselves. Coles told Gergen that adults can only teach values by living them. “I’m trying insist upon for myself as a parent and a teacher and for all of us, that any lesson offered a child in an abstract manner that isn’t backed up by deed is not going to work very well,” Coles said. “We live out what we presumably want taught to our children. And our children are taking constant notice, and they’re measuring us not by what we say but what we do.”

No one is perfect. As adults, we all make mistakes. Brian and Bob wouldn’t have asked perfection from their parents, but every child is watching to see if the person insisting on values is willing to live out those values themselves. Our lives, therefore, must include time to evaluate our own behavior. Not to point fingers at hypocrisy, but to more closely steer our courses ahead of those we hope to lead. As individuals and as members of a group with corporate values, we must ask, “Am I who I say I am?” “Are we who we say we are?”

In the process of watching our own behavior, the gap narrows for our children between what we say and what we do.