Ethics: The Mind of a Child

by : Chuck Gallagher

Henry just arrived home from a long day at work. He is reading the newspaper in his favorite chair waiting for dinner to be served. The phone rings. Henry yells out at the kids and his wife, “If it is for me tell them I not home". Julie, his oldest, answers the phone. She has been told not to lie and now he is telling her to lie. She is confused, but she does as he says and tells the caller he isn’t in and then takes a message. She didn’t feel good about lying, but she was obedient. There didn’t seem to be any consequences to lying. Sue observes her parents discussing hiding their assets from the government so as not to pay taxes. Her father is a very successful business man and earns an excellent income. They have everything money can buy, and they have respect from the community. They have all the illusions of success and they want more. If they don’t declare all their income, they can have even more. They argue that it is stealing, but her father prevails. Later that week, Sue steals a candy bar from the store. She worries about getting caught, but nothing happens. There is something to this. Her choices are not resulting in negative consequences and she gets to enjoy the candy. Bob’s parents drink every night. They like to have a good time. People are over all the time and consume a lot of alcohol. There is laughter and more laughter. They appear happy. One night Bob comes home and he is drunk. He was having a good time with his friends. The parents are angry with him. He doesn’t get it. He yells “You drink what’s wrong with it?"The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ethics as “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation." Using this definition, did these parents behave in a clear ethical manner? Take a minute and think about it. I am sure that you will all come up with different answers. In these seemingly insignificant examples, these parents demonstrated, by their actions, far more than any of their words. They demonstrated that unethical choices did not result in negative consequences, and if you can get away with it, do it. What, therefore in today’s society, is the motivation for making ethical choices?Children are born pure and moral. There is no conscious mind at birth, no conscience and thus no choices to make. They cry when they are hungry, and they laugh when they are happy. This is a time they are completely dependent on their parents and they learn to develop trust that their needs will be met by their parents. This trust is paramount for maturing through life and will eventually be part of choices made later in life. The babies evolve into toddlers where they learn autonomy and the word no. They are learning about controlling their bodies by walking and toilet training and affecting the behavior of the parents. Still, the conscious mind has yet to develop. Around four the child learns initiative and how to participate in cooperative play with his/her peers. The parents cease to be the only people in their world. They are generalizing the behavior with their parents to their peers. During school age the child learns how to be industrious. The discipline of doing homework enters into the picture. The conscious mind begins developing and the ability to discern right and wrong evolves. The fifth stage of development is where they learn identity. This is where they are once again separating from the parents and trying on new roles of behavior. These are the teen years where every boundary is tested and retested. These are the years that a child no longer accepts the values of the parents based on their word only. They are developing their own set of ethics. Each stage is predicated on successful completion of the earlier stage. (Eight Stages of Development developed by psychiatrist, Erik Erikson – It is important to note that five of the eight stages occur during the first 18 years of a child’s life. This leads one to believe that childhood and the teen years are critical times of development.

The lessons of ethical behavior are partly determined on moving successfully through the stages of development and have sufficient autonomy to define ethical choices. What they learn at home is primary and paramount to their developing positive ethical choices. If the parent’s behavior is congruent between actions and words, likely the child will have the same congruency or at least experience dissonance between his/her actions and words. What happens when there is a lack of congruency between the parent’s behavior and their words much like what happened above (this is the don’t do as I do, but do as I say mentality)? How do the teens learn right and wrong? How do they make ethical choices while living under an umbrella of ethical illusions? Unless ethics is taught in school or they have an adult mentor, they may never have the opportunity for ethical development. They might not understand that ethical choices equal positive results, and that unethical choices equal negative consequences. In school, teens are under constant pressure to perform in ways that are expected of adults. Frequently they succumb to lying and cheating to ensure success as modeled in some cases by their parents. Without ethical development, they possibly will grow into adults and focus on success whatever the cost. They will create the illusion of success. Recognizing the need for ethical training, Chuck Gallagher, an international keynote speaker, created the Choices Foundation (a non-profit organization). Through this organization Chuck Gallagher travels to high schools and colleges teaching ethics from his personal experiences. Ethic programs do make a difference. For information on the Choices Foundation (a non-profit organization) and the presentations on ethics given by Chuck GallagherFree Reprint Articles, contact Chuck at or visit