Educating Children about Socially-Acceptable Behaviour

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/4471.htm)

An obvious first step towards encouraging socially-acceptable behaviour is for children to learn about it:

·      If they are taught the concept of ‘enlightened self-interest’ (4.2.3) they would learn why they should follow the Golden Rule – irrespective of the belief system in which they are growing up. 

·      An extension of this approach is the teaching of the concept of mutually-agreed rights and their relationship to the law (4.2.4).  There is evidence that children learn to behave better as a result of considering how one person’s behaviour affects another’s quality of life.[1]

·      They also need to learn the importance of respect, courtesy and integrity (4.4.2) – and they should be corrected if they fail to demonstrate these qualities.

Socially-acceptable behaviour needs to be taught by both parents and schools, by example and by conventional instruction.  It has been suggested that only after they have been shown how much they have in common should children be taught about the different foundations for morality, including the beliefs of their parents, in an approach termed ‘omniculturalism’ by Fathali M. Moghaddam:

“The endpoint of omniculturalism is a society whose members first recognize the importance of their common similarities and bonds, and then, secondarily, celebrate, uphold, and share the distinctiveness of different groups, local identities, and lifestyles.  In omniculturalism, the celebration of human commonalities shared by all groups serves as a prerequisite for and a stepping stone toward the celebration of intergroup differences.  By first socializing the young to recognise and act on basic human psychological similarities, omnicultural policy diminishes the tendency for group-based differences to become highlighted, exaggerated, and used as the primary basis for relationships.  In turn, this will lessen the tendency for prejudice and discrimination.” [2]

Such a policy would allow religion to be taught, but only after the teaching of common values.  Even if this sequence is not followed, the strongest emphasis should be placed upon teaching socially-acceptable behaviour – which is consistent with the Golden Rule being at the centre of all religions ( 

It is clearly easier to recommend pluralist education than to put it into practice, as was clearly illustrated by the Muslim Council of Britain's “information and guidance document”: Towards Greater Understanding- Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils in State Schools.[3]  This document warned schools about the sensitivities of Muslim pupils (or their parents) on such subjects as dance, drama and painting the human figure as well as restrictions applicable during Ramadan.  It is likely that most schools have not followed these guidelines for most pupils, as they would be regarded as excessively strict by most Muslims, but the document is a useful reminder of where the sensitivities lie and it can contribute to discussion. 

Richard Dawkins argues that children should not be brought up to believe in any religion,[4] but this is clearly unrealistic; one cannot prevent parents from teaching religion and it is widely regarded as a parent’s right – for example in Article 26 of the UDHR (Appendix 1).  A more practical approach is to ensure that children are also taught to have a wider perspective and a respect for other 'people of the book' and to ensure that they are free to change their beliefs in adulthood.  As discussed in the relevant chapter, political decisions may form a part in guaranteeing freedom of belief ( and in setting education policy (, though the effects of those decisions are primarily experienced in the Moral Dimension.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014

[1] A BBC report on 2 November 2010, entitled Lessons in children's rights 'improve discipline', was available in May 2014 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11673504).  Its programme notes stated:

“A study by the children's organisation, UNICEF UK, says teaching children about their rights helps reduce bullying and improves behaviour.”

The rights referred to in this context are listed in The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The UN General Assembly adopted this Convention and opened it for signature on 20 November 1989.  It was available in May 2014 at http://www.unicef.org.uk/Documents/Publication-pdfs/betterlifeleaflet2012_press.pdf, and consists of an expanded and child-centric interpretation of the UDHR.  It includes the following examples of reciprocity as a requirement:

Article 14 (freedom of thought, belief and religion)

Every child has the right to think and believe what they want and also to practise their religion, as long as they are not stopping other people from enjoying their rights. Governments must respect the rights of parents to give their children guidance about this right.

Article 15 (freedom of association)

Every child has the right to meet with other children and young people and to join groups and organisations, as long as this does not stop other people from enjoying their rights.”

[2] Fathali M. Moghaddam is a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, and referred to the concept of ‘omniculturalism’ in his book, The New Global Insecurity, p. 124.

He also described omniculturalism in a lecture at the LSE in May 2009, entitled The Failure of both Multiculturalism and Assimilation, and the New Path of Omniculturalism, which was available as an MP3 in May 2014 at http://richmedia.lse.ac.uk/publicLecturesAndEvents/20090521_1830_theFailureOfBothMulticulturalismAndAssimilationAndTheNewPathOfOmniculturalism.mp3

[3] The Muslim Council’s guidance document, which was published in January 2007, was available in May 2014 at http://www.muslimparents.org.uk/app/download/5777027680/MCBSchoolGuidance.pdf.

[4] As noted previously (4.3.3) Richard Dawkins’s argument, that children should not be brought up to believe in any religion, appears in The God Delusion, chapter 9.