Giving Kids a Moral Compass

Illustration of a young man in the midst of a colorful compass
Carl Wiens

Every day, our kids face any number of moral dilemmas. Should I tell the truth? Should I copy from my friend’s homework, or let him copy from mine? Should I watch this racy DVD? Should I treat a classmate with kindness?

Young children probably won’t use the words moral dilemma to describe these scenarios, but they do understand that some decisions are harder than others, and that some choices are better than others. As kids get older, they understand the pressure to conform to an immoral culture—a culture with challenges not faced by previous generations.

As parents, we want to raise our children to make moral choices that will lead them toward honorable, successful lives. Can we help them build a moral compass that gives them a sense of direction when faced with life’s difficult decisions?

Fighter pilots sometimes experience a phenomenon known as vertigo. When this happens, a pilot can become disoriented as to how fast and high he is going. If he relies on his sensations or memory, he may lose control of the aircraft. But one thing will not lie to the pilot—his instruments. His instruments help him determine his orientation and speed so he can safely control the plane.

I like using this example with young people because it illustrates two key components of truth and morality: First, when we’re confused about what to do, a standard does exist, something that helps us recognize up from down, right from wrong. Second, that moral standard is necessarily outside our own feelings and intuition. The very concept of morality means that the standard of truth comes from a higher authority—beyond just the rules or habits of our culture.

Put another way, trying to live a moral life on our own is . . . well, impossible. But God never intended anyone to be on his or her own. When we trust in Him, He provides the guidance and support to walk in accordance with His plan. Here are five ways we help our kids journey through life with a constant eye on the “instrument panel” that God provides:

Keep the mission in mind

When my son, Scottie, was born, I remember looking at him and searching for any resemblance he might have to his parents. Did he have my nose? My wife’s eyes? As Scottie grew, the answer became clear: He was the image of his father. In fact, looking at photographs of me and my dad, we discovered that Scottie resembled two generations of McDowells. There is something about having a child who looks like me that feels very honoring.

So it is with God. He is pleased when we begin to look and act like Him, when we exhibit patience, kindness and love. This is a foundational principle that we need to continually model for our kids, and it’s one they can return to when life’s decisions seem complicated: God wants us to reflect His character. Throughout life, how can we best look and act like Jesus?

Read the manual

Not too long ago, I purchased a new Dell laptop with all the bells and whistles. To figure out the intricacies of my computer, do you think I pulled out my old Nintendo manual? No, the best way to figure out how to use my laptop was to consult that computer’s instruction manual. In much the same way, God revealed His instructions through the Bible. If we want our kids to make good choices in life, we need to help them regularly consult the “manual” from the Designer of life. If our kids are unfamiliar with God’s principles, they are more likely to make poor choices. Studying God’s Word gives them the wisdom to discern right from wrong when life’s choices seem unclear.

Connect to power

Children have an easy time understanding power, especially how things won’t work without a proper supply. Flashlights require batteries, cars are useless without gas, and dark rooms are illuminated by electric lights. And just as these things need power to function, humans also need a power source (beyond food and water, of course). The Bible tells us that when we trust Jesus Christ with our lives, God’s “power” source—His Holy Spirit—comes to live inside us. The Holy Spirit empowers our faith by convicting us of sin and equipping us with the courage and ability to do what is right.

Don’t let your kids forget that they have the strength of the Holy Spirit inside them! As a family, seek God’s wisdom and counsel through prayer, which is our “connection” to this power source. And as you journey through life together, help your kids recognize the Spirit’s prompting and guidance, both when they feel regret for poor decisions and when they sense the conviction and courage to stand for what is right.

Bring help

King David is my favorite person in the Bible. But despite his godly, noble qualities, David committed some egregious sins in his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. I have often wondered where David’s friends were when he made these decisions. Didn’t he have a support system that encouraged him to do right?

I believe this question is relevant in our kids’ lives: What kind of friends do they have? Do those friends encourage our children to follow God’s leading, or do they steer them away from that path? While there may be nothing wrong with hanging out with non-Christians—God calls us to a mission of love for others—our kids do need the regular support of friends who will not lead them astray.

We probably can’t actively select every friend our kids have. But we all make choices that help develop our kids’ different friendships. We can also regularly help our kids recognize the power and influence of supportive relationships, and how their ability to make good choices will be at a great disadvantage without friends who can hold them accountable.

Avoid interference

If friends can influence our ability to make good decisions, can media do the same? When I raise this topic with students, they usually tell me that television and movies, music and advertising don’t affect their behavior very much. They believe they have a sort of “immunity” against negative media influences. But research shows that media do influence the way people think about the world. Consider that American businesses spend billions of dollars every year on advertising. Advertisers understand a simple truth: What we watch and listen to really does affect our decisions.

If we’re not actively involved in our kids’ media choices, they can become bombarded by lies that will affect their ability to make good decisions. But we must also help them recognize how media can influence their moral choices. I think an important first step is to show our kids how media incompletely or inaccurately portray consequences for poor choices. This lack of connection between behavior and consequences gradually affects the way young people view certain behaviors in real life.

It’s no easy task to raise moral kids. But God offers a plan: to help our kids follow the role model of God’s son, be empowered by the Holy Spirit through prayer, study Scripture and apply it to our lives, surround ourselves with other believers and steer clear of harmful media. By utilizing these tools, we help our kids develop the ability to make wise, moral choices in an immoral society.

Sean McDowell is the author or co-author of several books on biblical worldview, including The Unshakable Truth, written with Josh McDowell. Sean leads the Bible department at Capistrano Valley Christian Schools and teaches philosophy, theology and apologetics.

This article first appeared in the October/November 2013 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "Guidance System: Equipping kids with a framework for making moral choices." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing for a gift of any amount.
Portions of this article were adapted from Ethix: Being bold in a whatever world by Sean McDowell. Used with permission of B&H Publishing Group. Copyright © 2013 by Sean McDowell.

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