Many of today’s kids seem to be flunking the daily moral tests of life.

James, a teacher-friend of mine, lamented recently how “morally challenged” his high school students seem to be. “They don’t think twice about lying or slamming someone’s reputation. Cheating on tests is no big deal. They only worry if they’ll get caught.”

Recent headlines and the latest studies paint a dismal picture of cheating, bullying, sexual experimentation, on-line exhibitionism and “cyber-stalking.” College students show declining levels of empathy—a quality viewed as the foundation of ethical behavior. And the problems start early. A quick snapshot of the playground culture captures younger children who bully their way to the top of the slide or push past a crying child to reach the swings first, classic examples of self-absorption and lack of compassion.

What—or who—is to blame?

Fingers point to a variety of big cultural problems: hyper-sexualized media, fragmented families, declining religiosity, and rampant materialism.

But new research from Notre Dame Professor Darcia Narvaez suggests that current parenting practices are the more likely culprit. The “moral sense” of children—now and in times past–hinges on whether they learn empathy and concern for others, particularly in the early years of life. ““Our work shows that the roots of moral functioning form early in life, in infancy, and depend on the affective quality of family and community support.” And the problem, according to her research, is that today’s child-rearing practices make that increasingly difficult. The result: “The quality of our cultural moral fiber is diminishing.”

The specific problems with childrearing today might be summed up by what’s missing: time together, physical closeness, and adult responsiveness. In particular, Narvaez contrasts the “emotionally suboptimal day care facilities with little individualized, responsive care” to the optimal situation that keeps children close to mom, encourages parental responsiveness to infant needs, and offers parents and children strong support from extended family and the community.

She cites a specific set of “ancestral” practices that cultivate strong family bonds—and consequently support moral development, particularly compassion and concern for others. These include:

* Plenty of positive touch (cuddling, carrying, etc.)
* Parental responsiveness to the child’s needs.
* Extended breastfeeding (2-5 years)
* Natural child-birth (which provides a hormonal boost aiding newborn care)
* Lots of unstructured playtime, with children of varied ages.
* The presence of additional adults (typically dads and grandmothers) to love, care for, and guide the child. Mom is not alone.

I don’t think anyone would argue that we should—even if we could–replicate the exact family practices of long ago. But the insights from Dr. Narvaez’ research make sense, from a parent’s perspective.

It’s much easier to discipline a child and pass on a moral framework within the context of a warm, caring parent-child relationship.

As a practical matter, kids who feel loved and well-cared for tend to listen better and want to please their parents—making discipline easier and encouraging them to internalize their parents’ morals. Kids naturally imitate what they see over time, so the time spent together and the quality of the relationship with the parent are important: a child who experiences the self-giving love of a parent sees a daily model of other-centeredness, and the parent’s responsiveness teaches a child to recognize others’ needs and alleviate their sufferings, instilling compassion.

The bottom line: moral formation does seem to “stick” better when it’s given in the context of a good relationship and supported by others, both in the family and the community at large. But a warm parent-child relationship, or strong “attachment,” takes time, togetherness, tenderness, and teaching—all of which seem to be frequent casualties of our fast-paced, multi-tasking, dual-income lifestyles.

Dr. Narvaez’ research is both a comfort and a warning. She says, “Kids who don’t get the emotional nurturing they need in early life tend to be more self-centered. They don’t have available the compassion-related emotions to the same degree as kids who were raised by warm, responsive families.” Her words offer comfort for those who sacrifice much in order to give their children love and a good moral foundation. But they also warn that if our society fails to support families with children, the moral fabric of our culture will surely unravel.

Mary Rice Hasson is a Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC. She is currently working on a book that offers new data on and explores the views of Catholic women on sexual...