Empathetic Children have a Moral Identity: Developing an Ethical Code
by Sandy Emerson
One of the 21st century’s most enduring heroes, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, pilot of the U.S. Airways plane who made an emergency landing on the Hudson River, saved every single passenger on board, despite losing both engines shortly after takeoff. Sullenberger asserts that it was a pledge made as a child, to never be a bystander or abandon anyone in danger, that created the basis for the ethical code he lives by today.
Many adults believe this attitude of service to others has been lost over subsequent generations, but the author believes it can and should be cultivated in today’s children. Borba (2017) suggests that today’s society “tends to focus on cognitive, social, and physical feats” (p. 27), neglecting the traits that build moral identity. Contributing to this trend is the rise in narcissism, excessive praise, and the growth of the number of “entitled” children who think the world should believe they are as special as they have been told all their lives. As these children grow into adults, the ramifications of these factors follow them into colleges and workplaces, causing educators and businesses to employ new strategies to reach this generation that seems to look out only for #1.
According to the author, the foundations of moral identity are created and fortified by giving children images that enable them to see themselves are kind and caring and able to place value on the feelings and thoughts of others (p. 27). Borba wraps up the chapter with a Top Five list of things to know about developing moral identity (p. 44):
Moral identity can inspire empathy, activate compassion, and motivate caring behavior.
To respond empathetically, kids must value the thoughts and feelings of others.
Overpraising can make kids competitive, tear others down, and diminish empathy.
Entitling and “overvaluing” kids may increase narcissism and hamper moral identity.
If a child can imagine himself as a caring person, he is more likely to care about others.
Opportunities to reflect and challenge yourself:
Watch for signs of overpraise in the children your world. How can you positively impact them and help grow and/or undergird their moral identity?
Study the language you use with the young people in your sphere of influence for a week. See what changes you can make to align your praise with character.
Look for ways to actively model the characteristics of empathy, compassion, caring, and ethical behavior.
Pick one suggestion from this chapter to incorporate into your practice at home or in the classroom this week.
Post a reflection of one these challenges in the comments.