I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
-St.  Paul.  Romans 7:15.

How do we raise kids who will choose the right thing to do, even when we’re not breathing down their necks?  How do we  help our kids avoid–as much as possible–the problem of knowing the right thing to do but still being unable to do it in the moment?

This is one of the greatest challenges facing the faithful parent.  And while there are, of course, no guarantees, the good news is that with new information from both science and the Theology of the Body, it is easier than ever for parents to know what they need to do to help their kids make good moral choices even when mom and dad aren’t looking and the pressure is on.

Making Moral Choices:  How Do We Do It?

The Theology of the Body tells us that by prayerfully contemplating God’s design of our body, we can learn some important things about our origin, our destiny, and how we are called to related to others while we’re here.  The more we cooperate with God’s design of the body, the easier it should be to become what we were created to be.  So, as a starting point in our discussion of raising moral kids, let’s talk about how the brain makes moral decisions.

You’ve probably noticed that in order to “do the right thing” under pressure and when no one’s looking, it isn’t enough to have good information about what constitutes right and wrong.  That’s because the brain stores information in the cortex, but it produces the impulse to act under pressure in the limbic system, which is in a whole other neighborhood as far as your neurology is concerned.

Even though the cortex is the library where all our really sophisticated resources are stored, the limbic system gets information from the outside world before any other part of the brain because it’s job is to produce impulses (for instance, the fight, flight, or freeze response) that keep me out of danger. Many of the things the limbic system might want to do when left to its own devices (e.g., tantrum, punch,  ignore the problem, go along with the crowd, act paralyzed and fail to say/do what I should) end up producing morally questionable behaviors at best.

By contrast, the cortex’s job is to review what the limbic system wants to do and either rubber stamp it (“Yup!  Look’s good to me!”) or insist that the limbic system do something else and provide the explicit directions for how to do that alternative thing.

Traffic Jams in the Moral Brain

In order to make moral choices when the pressure is on and no one is watching, my limbic system needs to be able to have a rapid “conversation” with my cortex about what’s going on, what my impulses are telling me to do, how to reconcile that against what I believe is right thing to do, and how to make a plan to follow through. This all has to happen in less than a split second.

If this rapid communication doesn’t occur between the cortex and limbic system then one of two things happen.  First, the cortex may never get to weigh in on the situation at all.  In that case,  I simply do what my limbic system tells me and I honestly can’t consciously describe why I’m doing it  (Parent:”Why did you do THAT!” Child: “I don’t KNOW!”).

The other possibility is that the cortex gets the information, but relays its alternative response back to the limbic system too late, leading to those situations where we find ourselves doing the wrong thing, but feel powerless to do anything about it except criticize ourselves afterward for screwing things up yet again.  No matter how good my moral training has been, no matter how much information I have stored in my cortex, if my cortex and limbic system aren’t capable of having that rapid fire moral dialog, my ability to do the right thing–especially under pressure and when no one is watching–will be seriously compromised.

Donkey Trails vs. Superhighways

So what makes this moral conversation possible?  Neurons act like roads connecting different regions of the brain.  Some of those “roads” are more like donkey trails and some are superhighways. Obviously, because you need to  make moral decisions so rapidly, you want a superhighway connecting the various parts of your moral brain. That’s where mom and dad come in.  Science reveals that the single most important thing parents can do to build the superhighway connecting the different parts of your child’s moral brain is give the child EXTRAVAGANT affection.

Affection Trains the Moral Brain

The Theology of the Body tells us that we were made for love and that even our bodies are wired for love.  Neuroscience is showing us how true that really is.

A study that followed 500 children from birth to mid-life and found that the levels of affection these children received by eight months of age predicted the level of development of what I am calling the “moral brain” in adulthood.  When the children (now 30+ yo adults) were divided up according to the levels of affection they received in infancy/toddlerhood (e.g., neglected, normal, extravagant), only the 7% of children who received extravagant levels of affection (as opposed to 85% who received “normal” and the 6% who received “neglectful” levels of affection) demonstrated the greatest degree of those skills associated with good moral decision making.

Another study involving 100 children found that the kids who received the highest levels of affection at home developed much larger hippocampi, the parts of the brain responsible for emotional control and stress regulation, two other skills that have been directly associated with moral decision making.

The bottom line is that if parents want moral kids, we need to do much more than sheltering kids’ innocence and telling them the difference between right from wrong.  Parents need to prepare their children’s brains for the work of moral decision making by rooting them in extravagant physical affection and generous displays of parental love.

This article is adapted from Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s new, revised, and expanded edition of Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids. 

Two boys photo available from Shutterstock.