GUEST BLOG POST: How to Talk with Your Kids About Ethics by Michael Parker

Photo credit: Petri Kurkaa


Ethics and values should be spoken about regularly in homes. Every time your child comes home with an example of something “unfair” that happened at school, this is an opportunity to speak about ethics. When an issue comes up on television or in films, this is an opportunity to speak about ethics.

The key is to understand certain values are generally better than others—that courage is better than cowardice, that generosity is better than selfishness—and the rightness of these values is exposed by conversation and free thinking.

For example, you can tell a child “You have to be tolerant of other people” and he or she will hear “parent static” and probably filter you out. But if you use situations and examples to discuss tolerance and guide them to their own conclusions, your child will probably come to the view that tolerance is preferable to intolerance. The difference is that your child will have articulated the view themselves. The opinion will be his or hers and s/he will own it. So, in short, the better way to make a child tolerant is not to tell them to be, but to make him or her think it themselves.

The most important skill for parents to learn is how to fan the flames of the conversation so that the discussions catch fire instead of go out. There are many ways to do this and I have listed a few here.


Once your child has put forward a point of view, you can ask them why they believe this or you can ask them to give an example. You can ask them to give reasons for their opinion. You can ask how it links with other ideas they have had. You can ask them how it is different from something their brother or sister has just said. Just keep asking questions. By doing this, you are shepherding them along and getting them to think about their own thinking. (By the way, the single word “Why?” is more likely to fan the flames of a discussion than anything else.)

Asking more questions can be harder than it sounds. You might want to jump in with your own opinion, which could well be a conversation killer. Sometimes you will have to bite your tongue and use questions to explore the point of view with your children. The more they get to speak, the more they will feel that their point of view is being valued and the more they will be willing to speak. 

Some specific questions:

            “What would the world look like if everyone did that?”

           “Can you think of an opposite example?”



           “Who gets advantaged by that? Who gets disadvantaged? Is that fair?”

           “What do you think your football coach/priest/teacher/rabbi/school principal would think about that?”






This means coming up with the opposite opinion (e.g. if everyone in the family quickly decides that it is okay to tell a white lie to your granny who has knitted you a horrible sweater, then you can be the person to say that granny would rather know the truth so that she stopped wasting her time knitting more sweaters that no one likes). However, it is vitally important that your children know you are playing devil’s advocate to keep the discussion going, instead of just disagreeing with them. Flat out disagreements may throw water on the fire of the conversation instead of keeping it going.


 Many of the conversations are about real world issues, such as bullying, lying, and cafeteria behavior, that your child may well have other examples of (e.g. the questions about bystander bullying may prompt them to talk about a time when they saw someone being bullied). These “real life” examples are probably more likely to fan a discussion, because they have experienced it. Once you have the real world examples, you can even leave the hypotheticals behind and get to the real world discussion. Other hypotheticals (e.g. would you torture a terrorism suspect) will not have real life analogues, unless your child is living a very interesting life. 


Children are more likely to have a discussion with you if they think you are taking what they say seriously. Showing you are interested involves actively listening. Do all the little conversation promoters such as “okay,” “I see,” and “right” as they are speaking. Nod as they speak. Ask them follow up questions. Don’t look like you are waiting for their turn to be over so you can get back to delivering your point. Better still, BE interested in what they say, so that all of the conversation promoters come naturally. 


Don’t Speak Too Much

If you find you are speaking more than your children, you are speaking too much. A conversation is not an opportunity for a lecture. 

Don’t Disagree Too Early

Explore why your child believes what he or she does. If you are going to have to genuinely disagree, you need to disagree in a way that keeps the channels of communication open. It is okay to disagree—after all, if your child says “stealing is fine because K-Mart isn’t going to go broke if I rip them off,” you cannot simply let them think that is okay. However, the hypothetical nature of the questions allows you to explore and break down your child’s view. On the other hand, if the police bring your child home for having stolen something from K-Mart, feel free to make as many absolute pronouncements as you like.


Excerpted from TALK WITH YOUR KIDS: Conversations about Ethics, Honesty, Friendship, Sensitivity, Fairness, Dedication, Individuality and 103 Other Things that Really Matter (August 2013, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers) by Michael Parker, M.Ed. Parker is deputy headmaster and head of Senior School at Cranbrook School in Sydney, Australia. He graduated with a law degree, then earned a masters in education with a specialty in teaching philosophy to children. He was the subject of a documentary called “Inspiring Teachers.”

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