Developing a child’s moral compass

AS the youngest in my family, I used to hear my late mum reminding my older siblings to always be ethical, respectful, and to behave well.

If they had been mischievous in their daily activities, they would get this message from her: “In life, you must have one of these two to make rational decisions: one is external consciousness where you learn from your parents and those around you; the other is internal consciousness where you do self-check and balance internally.”

Now that I am teaching subjects like Moral Education, Ethics and Civilisation, I find my late mum’s simple philosophy of life invaluable. When you are young, you need people around you to teach you what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, and how to balance and make decisions.

Usually, when a child makes a mistake in moral decision-making, the child is reprimanded by his or her parents and it becomes a lifelong lesson for the child.

When he or she starts growing up, such mistakes become lesser and lesser because the child has begun developing internal consciousness.

That is due to the experiences that the child has undergone, the praises and punishments that the child has received because of his or her actions, and the support provided by external factors to develop internal consciousness.

The conflict here is when external consciousness does not develop into internal consciousness.

Then, from the perspective of moral development, one might not be gaining improvement because one’s experiences and mental cognition stay at the lower level.

It’s at the pre-conventional or conventional level where every moral deed depends on praises and punishments.

So, to develop children morally in a multicultural society, its timely for parents, caregivers, teachers and everyone involved in the growth and development of young people to stop focusing on short-term external consciousness only.

There should be lots of opportunities for young children to develop self-realisation and internal consciousness.

In nations where children are provided ample space to grow and learn, they tend to develop internal consciousness faster compared to their peers in nations where enforcement is through punishment and strict obedience.

Thus, some stay obedient in the eyes of the public and might be otherwise in their own private space.

Back to my late mum’s advice, in life, you need either one to be ethical.

For me, we need both to take us to greater heights in morality and in leading an ethical life.



Centre for Research in International and Comparative Education

Universiti Malaya

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