Summary: Empathy is a foundational virtue that children need to learn for determining right from wrong

Learning Right from Wrong: Empathy


Several weeks ago Sue and I received a request from Lima Allen Council on Community Affairs to conduct a session for parents on helping children learn right from wrong. These are parents who, for one reason or another, have demonstrated a need to improve their parenting skills so that their children do not get caught up in the problems our society faces. We spent an hour with several parents talking about this issue.

The fact is that today’s society faces a crisis regarding our children. Almost every day we hear of shocking tragedies about kids, and many people are worried. If you were asked to list your concerns about kids, many of you would include violence. Did you know that American kids are 10 times more likely to commit murder than the same- age kids across the border in Canada? Cruelty among kids is increasing. Estimates show that over 150,000 children each day miss school for fear of being picked on by their peers. Other behaviors we are concerned about include: cheating, disrespect, vulgarity, and substance abuse.

Somehow, many parents have lost their moral bearings. And when parents no longer know right from wrong, it’s unlikely that children will learn which way to go. Not long ago, a woman was lamenting her teenage son’s behavior (drugs, alcohol, breaking the law). “We thought we did everything possible to get him on the right track. But obviously we failed somewhere.” All parents want their children to make good decisions about their values and their behavior and to develop a sense of right and wrong. What we wanted to tell this mother was that she needs to lead by example, by going to the right places and by doing the right things. And the place she needs to start is in Sunday school and church herself.

We live in what one author calls “a toxic world,” a world unfriendly to moral living. TV programs make fun of rules and moral behavior. Kids ridicule each other for doing the right thing. There is only one way to set our moral compass so we go in the right direction. That is to seek God’s way. As we told those parents, the Bible says, Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it. Prov. 22:6.Parents have an awesome responsibility to nurture their children’s moral character.

Since we usually focus on family issues in May, we want to spend three Sundays on how to help kids grow solid characters and learn right from wrong. We will deal with three virtues that form the foundation for understanding right and wrong: empathy, conscience, and self-control. We need to understand that a healthy sense of right and wrong grows from the inside. You can’t punish the wrong out of a child; you need to build character from within.


When you were born, you didn’t come with a pre-programmed set of instructions about right and wrong. Someone helped you to learn. If you were fortunate, it was your parents. You might ask where your parents got their knowledge of right and wrong and where their parents got it. Eventually, we need to acknowledge that the standard for right and wrong comes from one source - the Bible. It serves as our code for right living. Happy are the parents who have internalized that moral code and are passing it on to their children. You know, and so do we, that not all parents are living according to God’s standards, nor are they teaching their children what is right and wrong.

In a nationwide survey of parents, George Barna found disappointing results. (1) Parents were equally divided on whether to tell their children that the Bible teaches moral absolutes that must always be obeyed or that there are no moral absolutes and children just need to make good choices. (2) One of the most startling observations, Barna said, was how few born-again parents indicated that one of the most important concepts parents needed to help their children grasp was salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. “Only 3 out of 10 born-again parents included salvation of their child in the list of critical parental emphases,” he said. (3) Barna says, “For years we have reported research findings showing that born-again adults think and behave very much like everyone else. It often seems that their faith makes very little difference. This new study helps explain why that is: believers do not train their children to think or act any differently. When our kids are exposed to the same influences and are generally not guided to interpret their circumstances and opportunities in light of biblical principles, it is no wonder that they grow up to be just as involved in gambling, adultery, divorce, cohabitation, excessive drinking and other unbiblical behaviors as everyone else. What we build into a child’s life prior to the age of 13 represents the moral and spiritual foundation that directs their choices for the remainder of their life.”

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