Supporting Children’s Ethical Identities – Wrongness and Goodness

Our ethical identity is shaped throughout our lives as we interact with people, the physical environment, and objects. Our ethical identity guides how we see the world, frame the relationships that drive our daily actions and evaluate others’ actions. Often, the mental images we have created are based on the judgment of our actions and behaviors. We see things in terms of rightness and goodness or, the opposite, wrongness and badness. Instead of this right or wrong perspective, let’s create a paradigm shift that invites us to play together, make meaning together to co-author possibilities, and over time, possibly shape our ethical identities from a more positive point of view. 
​​The world is rapidly changing, and we must adapt as we move forward. However, we must not move forward without critically analyzing the powerful history, theories, and traditions that have defined us. This process must include a review and thoughtful critique of the dominant ideas in how we view children.  Only then will we support developing an ethical compass in ourselves and the children we care for and educate. Recently, we saw the Black Lives Movement evolve. Children witnessed and participated in fighting the inequities in society. They were part of a movement to bring meaningful changes to the world. Educators looked for answers and resources to help them discuss social justice with young children. Gathering resources is a start but not the end of the process. To change education, we must develop an ethical compass that helps us reflect on and question our assumptions and opinions. We also need to commit to listen to diverse perspectives and go deeper into our own understandings of diversity. Finally, we need to embrace a stance that propels us to engage in dismantling racism and systems of oppression. In other words, we need to educate ourselves and speak up against inequities.

In her book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, Vivian Gussin Paley offers a different perspective on the issue of fairness. She models how she reflects, analyzes, and creates a thoughtful plan to respond to children’s comments and actions, A plan that provides children with the opportunity to behave fairly with each other. Paley’s also models how educators must develop their own moral understanding and an understanding of child development to help children gain an ethical and moral identity. 

I invite you to notice how many times during the day you perceive children’s actions from the weight or wrong angle. How do you respond to these actions? Do you remind them that they need to make better choices or follow the rules? Or, do you create a plan that engages children in conversations to deepen their ethical and moral identity? What theory did you use to guide your practices? What do you know about the children and families in your program? As educators, we must go beyond setting expectations of what choices children need to make, what rules they must follow and instead begin to consider each child’s authentic selves. So often create arbitrary rules that are not responsive or inclusive of diverse cultural perspectives and thus set children up for failure. To help children develop an ethical and moral compass, we need to consider creating ecosystems that embrace democratic approaches and invite children to actively participate in the conversation. This is just the start and not the end of our effort to develop an ethical compass.