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'Respectful Engagement' Vital to Moral Education

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By practicing "respectful engagement," teachers and parents can help children learn to "reason autonomously about moral problems," suggests William Damon in the following excerpts from The Moral Child:

No amount of rote learning or indoctrination will prepare children for the many diverse situations that they will face in life. The child must learn to find the moral issue in an ambiguous situation, to apply basic moral values to unfamiliar problems, and to create moral solutions when there is no one around to give the child direction.

The only way to master these key challenges is to develop an autonomous ability to interpret, understand, and manage moral problems. Moral-education programs must keep as their first goal the fostering of such an ability and above all must do nothing to hinder its development.

This does not mean, as many have wrongly assumed, that moral-awareness programs should practice value neutrality. In fact, displays of values neutrality from teachers have an opposite effect to that intended. By failing to confront chil6dren with real values genuinely held, such displays engender in children an attitude of passive indifference--and even cynicism--towards the enterprise of moral choice.

Why should a child bother working through a moral problem, or risk taking a stand, when the child's supposed moral mentor refrains from publicly doing so? To have a lasting effect, moral educators must confront children with basic values that are clearly stated and sincerely held.

We return to the principle of "respectful engagement." The child's own decisionmaking capacities must be respected and fostered if the child is to become an autonomous moral agent. But the child must not be given the message that whatever he decides is automatically right.

The adult must engage the child with feedback, discussion, reasoning, and argumentation in order to convey the adult's position strongly and clearly. In an interaction characterized by respectful engagement, neither adult nor child can be passive.

The adult, in fact, must encourage the child's active participation, not only to ensure the child's attentiveness but also to bring out the very decisionmaking capacities that the child must further develop. At the same time, the adult owes it both to herself and to the child to actively assert her own value commitments.

Nor do I believe that adults in our society need to agonize about what these values should be. Whether or not we take a universalist stance on morality, it is evident that many of our society's most fundamental values are widely enough shared for unhesitating intergenerational transmission.

As I noted at the outset, none of us wants children who succumb to dishonesty, drugs, or cruel or antisocial behavior; and all of us want our children to endorse justice, legitimate authority, the needs of others, and their own responsibilities as citizens in a democratic society. Within this framework, there is plenty for us to argue about among ourselves, but there is also plenty that we can agree to impart to our children without ambiguity or hesitancy.

Excerpted with permission of the Free Press from The Moral Child: Nurturing Children's Natural Moral Growth by William Damon. Copyright 1988 by William Damon.

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