When it comes to developing our children’s morality, there are no shortcuts or bargains. We can’t expect morality to magically spring from self-esteem. We need to intentionally cultivate it in our children day to day.
We not only need to keep in check the subtle ways we prioritize happiness, we also need to explicitly emphasize goodness. We can push children to care about others even when it’s not comfortable. Rather than telling our children that the most important thing is that they are happy, we can tell them the most important thing is that they are kind. As the novelist Henry James put it: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”
What could matter most, though, is a fundamental shift in the goal of our child raising. Rather than making happiness the goal, what if we focused on our children’s maturity? Maturity includes managing destructive feelings such as envy, arrogance and anger, taking others’ perspectives and balancing our needs with those of others. It includes the ability to be self-observing and self-critical and to respond effectively to constructive feedback. These capacities help us to appreciate others despite conflicting interests, to care for others effectively and to live by important principles. These capacities enable us to be productive at work and to develop sturdy, meaningful relationships.
We ought to focus on cultivating these skills in children because they will be happier. But more importantly, we ought to nurture these qualities in our kids to help them become strong, caring adults, able to create a better and more just world.