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Developing a Conscience: Knowing the Difference Between Right and Wrong

“Moral development is the process through which children develop proper attitudes and behaviors toward other people in society, based on social and cultural norms, rules, and laws,” according to the Encyclopedia of Children’s Health.

I was raised by parents with strong moral values who were neither rigid, nor laissez faire. They seemed to walk the talk and be in integrity. One way to consider it, is that they most often said what they meant and meant what they said. They set a solid standard for healthy relationships since they put love above all else. What remains with me to this day are the verbal and non-verbal messages about:

  • Cleaning up after myself — physically and emotionally, (littering was a big no-no).
  • Being kind. My mom would echo the words of Thumper’s mother, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I must admit that it didn’t always serve me, since it became the soil from which some of my codependent attitudes blossomed. These days, I adapt it so that I run what I am about to say through the three gates: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?
  • Thinking through to outcome. Is what I’m doing going to benefit others as well as myself? My parents were avid volunteers and I became one as well. My son has also done his share of service.
  • Talking to strangers. I inherited the gift of gab from my father who could strike up a conversation with nearly anyone about almost any topic. He was not a highly educated man but had extreme emotional intelligence. Throughout my son’s childhood, he would ask why I was saying hello to people in supermarkets. I reminded him that everyone we now know, and love were once strangers.
  • Being responsible. They taught us to do our chores because it is what made life at home easier for everyone. If we whined and complained about cleaning, she would remind us with the words, “It’s the maid’s day off.” She and my father modeled that for us by doing their household chores in addition to working out in the world.
  • Don’t take what isn’t yours. My parents were clear that stealing was wrong, no ifs, ands or buts. We knew to ask before we reached for anything in a store or in people’s homes.
  • Non-violence. No one laid a hand on each other in anger in my home. We came to understand that people are not to be hit or intentionally hurt.
  • Charity. In our home, we had a little box where we put coins to donate to various organizations.
  • Respecting our elders. The corollary was that they respected us as well. We did not grow up in a ‘children should be seen and not heard,’ culture.

When my mother was on hospice back in 2010, we had a conversation that clarified an attitude that I had carried throughout my life. I told her that I recalled them reminding me not to do anything they would be ashamed of. She smiled and shook her head as she said, “We told you not to do anything YOU would be ashamed of.” All along, I had made their opinions the barometer by which I judged my own morality, rather than my own. As an adult in recovery from codependence, I have learned to source my values-based actions from the inside.

These pro-social attitudes are at the core of conscience. When people see each other as being like them, they are far less likely to exhibit harmful behaviors. Conversely, when they view others as alien and foreign, the increase in assaultive words and actions rise proportionally. There are various developmental theories that go into the tool kit that parents and educators utilize to help mold caring and ethically intact people, including those of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.

The word “conscience” harkens from the Latin word “conscientia,” a direct translation of the Greek “syneidesis.” It is defined as:

  • the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.
  • a faculty, power, or principle enjoining good acts the part of the superego in psychoanalysis that transmits commands and admonitions to the ego.

Sigmund Freud theorized that within each human being are three psychological constructs known as the id, ego and superego.

  • The id is part of the survival mechanism of the new born. Its needs get met by crying for the physical comfort of food, dry diapers, temperature modulation and comfort via touch. There are those adults I have encountered over the years, I would refer to as ‘all id,’ who want what they want when they want it, regardless of the impact on themselves or others. The infant has no capacity to comprehend that dynamic as an evolved adult would.
  • The superego is the part of a developing human that expresses understanding of morality; discernment of right and wrong.
  • The ego (which gets a bad rap) is there to moderate between the aforementioned functions. With the inclination to either be completely hedonistic or rigidly oriented, the ego has a necessary job to do to help create a healthy human being.

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