Moral Courage: Raising Kids Who Stand Up for What’s Right

Moral Courage: Raising Kids Who Stand Up for What’s Right

Here’s an unwelcome fact: Most kids will experience bullying at school, even if they’re not directly involved. Studies show that 70 percent of students witness bullying at school and 35 to 60 percent of students are directly involved as either the victim or the perpetrator.

What’s less certain is how those kids will respond to injustice. Will they have the moral courage to stand up for themselves or others? Can they do the right thing without a trusted adult there to coach them?

“Today, research shows that peer cruelty is escalating, personal entitlement is going up, and while empathy is going down,” says Michele Borba,  author of “End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: The Proven 6Rs of Bullying Prevention That Create Inclusive, Safe, and Caring Schools.” “It’s discouraging.”

At a time when most Americans feel the country’s values are deteriorating — 77 percent say the country’s moral values are declining, according to a 2018 Gallup poll — how can we raise kids who show courage when it counts?

It seems clear that when it comes to moral courage, caregivers can’t simply count on chance. “Parents who raise good kids don’t do so by accident,” Borba says. “You have to be intentional about it.” But since moral courage often means doing the right thing when parents and teachers aren’t around, how can we know if kids are getting it right?

Growing goodness

New research shows that the traits we associate with moral courage — like empathy, self-control and honesty — get stronger with practice and effort.

Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck wrote “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” about her research on intelligence and effort. 

She found that children with a growth mindset, or the understanding that intelligence could be developed through effort, were more successful than those who believed that intelligence was fixed.

These days, she’s applying this concept to the development of moral traits like self-control. In one of her recent studies, Dweck found that preschoolers can learn to resist temptation and delay gratification after listening to a story about it.

Many effective antibulling programs have a strong peer advocacy element — in other words, they teach kids to stand up for other kids — because this approach is proven to work.

 Research shows that when other kids intervene, most bullying stops within 10 seconds. Like any strategy, though, peer advocacy only works when kids have the skills and knowledge they need.

“Empathy is another cornerstone of moral courage,” Borba says. “The ability to identify with another’s perspective, built from babyhood on through one-on-one interactions, closely bonded relationships, even reading, is an essential trait of those who stand up for others. Teaching kids to identify and name their emotions can help build empathy and moral courage, too. When you teach emotional identification, kids learn, ‘He looks sad, I’ll go be a helper.’”

Libby Buelt’s 11-year-old-son Henry experienced an incident on the playground at age 8, in which a child with disabilities was being mocked and excluded by a peer. Buelt, who lives in Tacoma, Wa., says her son called out the bully. Afterwards, his classroom adopted inclusive guidelines and started a sportsman club. 

“When it comes to homegrown goodness, talking with your child about your values, and modeling those values yourself, is hard to beat,” Buelt says. “We talk a lot at home about our responsibility to try and make the world a better place. I’m very proud of the person Henry is and continues to become.”

The Brave Bookshelf:
Books that build moral courage for readers of all ages

What Happens Next by Susan Hughes

Henry the Boy by Molly Felder

Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice
 by Marianne Celano, Ph.D., Marietta Collins, Ph.D., and Ann Hazzard, Ph.D. 

The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad 

Luca’s Bridge/El Puente de Luca  by Mariana llanos 

Martin & Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank  by Nancy Churnin

The Brave Cyclist: The True Story of a Holocaust Hero by Amalia Hoffman 

Brave by Stacy McAnulty

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah
by Laurie Ann Thompson 

“I Walk with Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness” by Kerascoët

Wonder by R.J. Palacio 

Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw by Gina Loveless 

Take the Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance edited by Bethany Morrow 

We Are Lost and Found by Helene Dunbar

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