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A few years ago I was interviewed briefly on NPR’s On Point about moral development without religion. I managed to get my major point made — that moral development research shows that the process is aided more by a questioning approach than by passive acceptance of rules. But I gave a B- response to his next question, which was basically, “Without the Bible, what books do you use to guide moral development?”

I’m still kicking myself for my answer. Like a second-rate interviewee, I accepted the premise of his question: that moral development has something to do with books or other static sources of insight. I jibbered something about a wide range of sources being available, from Aesop’s Fables to even religious texts read humanistically — The Jefferson Bible and all that.

The A+ answer is that it isn’t a book thing at all. Moral development research — Grusec, Nucci, Baumrind, the works — has shown that moral understanding comes first and foremost from peer interaction. That’s why kids start framing everything in terms of fairness around age five, right when most of them are starting to have regular, daily peer interactions — including the experience of being treated fairly and unfairly, and making choices about how they will treat others, and feeling the consequences of those choices.

There’s also a slice of humble pie for parents in that research. As much as we would like to think we’re inculcating morality into our kids, that’s mostly rubbish. Sorry. We have a role, we’re just not as central as we’d like to think. We can and should help kids process their experiences and articulate their thoughts about them, but it’s the experience itself that provides the main text from which they draw moral understanding — not us, and not a book.

So there’s my rewrite. Extra credit, at least?


Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...

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