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Ten Principles for Moral Discipline: Introduction

by Izzy Kalman June 21, 2010 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to Bullying

The world is on a massive crusade to get rid of bullying in school, and this crusade is failing. Physical attacks in general are down because it is relatively easy for schools to target such overt aggressive behavior. However, less overt forms of bullying, such as insults, relational aggression and cyber-bullying are continuing in our schools and, if anything, are on the increase. Why are schools’ disciplinary efforts so unsuccessful in reducing bullying? Why can’t we succeed in teaching our children to treat each other morally?

The reason is quite simple. I’ll answer these questions with another questions: Can we raise children to be moral if we discipline them immorally?

Discipline is very serious business. The way we discipline children determines the way they understand what they did wrong, how they will behave in the future, and how they will discipline their own children when they become parents and teachers. We cannot assume that everything we do in the name of discipline is good. If we discipline children immorally, they will learn to be immoral. Unfortunately, much of what we do in the name of discipline is immoral and causes more harm than good. That’s why bullying has been becoming a more serious problem in our schools during the very same period that schools have been fighting bullying the hardest.

Ten years ago, I attended the Annual Convention of the National Association of School Psychologists in 2000. It took place in Washington, D.C., during the one-year anniversary of the Columbine shooting. Bullying was the main topic of that convention. I attended a workshop led by two school psychologists who were presenting the scientific research on bullying. One thing they told us was, “The research shows that when teachers intervene to stop bullying, it usually doesn’t help; however,” they said, “teachers should intervene anyway because it is the moral thing to do.”

I have heard and read this idea many times since then. It seems like a simple, straightforward idea: “Even though teacher intervention doesn’t help, teachers should intervene anyway because it’s the moral thing to do.”

However, this was actually a rather bizarre statement. Psychologists are supposed to be scientists. Based on the scientific evidence, they should have told us, “Teachers should probably not intervene to stop bullying because it usually does not help.” So the scientists reject the scientific evidence, and tell us what to do based on morality.

I always thought that morality is supposed to make life better. Is it moral to intervene if it doesn’t help? And what if it makes the bullying worse? I have known for decades that adult intervention almost always intensifies the bullying. Is it moral to intervene if it makes the bullying worse?

Another question that struck me is, “Did these two school psychologists study morality?” Morality is not a simple subject. There are people who spend their lives studying morality. We may study Kohlberg’s stages of moral development of the child, but that is not an in-depth investigation of morality. We may take courses in professional ethics, but those are mostly about how to protect ourselves from lawsuits. Few of us take courses in the philosophy of morality as part of our training.

I have therefore prepared ten principles for moral discipline. Any school, organization or society that understands and lives by these principles will achieve the closest thing to peace and harmony that’s possible. I will be explaining these principles in subsequent blog entries. My first principal will be, The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions. I hope you will look forward to reading them.

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