What Are the Best Ways to Build Ethically Strong Girls?

Promises to be honest and fair, responsible for what we say and do, respectful of ourselves and others—the Girl Scout Law is essentially a code of ethics.

Living that law isn't always easy. It's a challenge, too, to help girls understand that the choices they make every day reinforce those commitments. Here are some ways to bring those messages to girls.

The most important thing for the ethical development of children is for them to be around adults who act ethically. That may sound obvious, but it's not. No code of ethics will really sink in if there is a gap between what adults say and what they actually do.

If an adult stresses the importance of honesty, but girls witness her not correcting a store clerk who gives her too much change, there's a disconnect. If an adult speaks of the importance of showing respect for others, but regularly engages in gossip about Girl Scout parents, the behavior belies the message.

During 2008 and 2009, the Girl Scout Research Institute completed a new study called Good Intentions: The Beliefs and Values of Teens and Tweens Today. This was accomplished through a national survey of girls and boys in grades 3–12 and used the same questionnaire that we did in 1989 on values and decision making. Posing the same questions meant that we could make comparisons about how the views of children have changed over 20 years.

What we found is very encouraging. Four out of five say that environmental stewardship is important. Four out of five say they would volunteer. Compared to 20 years ago, fewer say they would cheat on a test or lie to their principals. More say they're likely to give to charity. More value civic engagement. More say they are willing to express an opinion even if it is not popular.

The youth of today have more clarity about right and wrong than many people give them credit for, and it is important for adults to understand how to support young people so they are able to actualize these good intentions.

—Kimberlee Salmond, senior researcher at the Girl Scout Research Institute.

In his book The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Mariner Books, 1990), psychiatrist Robert Coles recalls his father saying that "character is how you behave when no one is looking." By modeling ethical behavior, adults can instill in girls that ultimately it's how they choose to respond to both exceptional and everyday challenges that defines the people they ultimately become.

—Jeffrey Seglin, author of "The Right Thing," a weekly column on ethics distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.

Share stories of strong, smart, courageous women. Our culture is filled with so many images and messages that can disempower girls by implying that what's between their ears doesn't matter very much. Tell the stories of women who have stood up for what's right: U.S. civil rights leader Rosa Parks, Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, whistle-blowers Sherron Watkins of Enron and Coleen Rowley of the FBI.

Talk to girls about what's going on in their lives as they're developing their own ethical judgment and voice. Kids have to deal with all sorts of daily challenges, from how they treat friends and strangers in school to whether they help a friend cheat to how they deal with defeat or victory on the sports field. Some of these issues are black-and-white, but a lot involve what author Rush Kidder calls "right versus right" dilemmas, where truth and loyalty can collide with justice and mercy.

Give girls an opportunity to talk about these issues, challenge them to think deeply about them, and treat their personal struggles with respect. Ethics is not about having all the answers—it's a lifelong commitment to asking the right questions

—Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott College and founding director of Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics.

The Girl Scout Research Institute (GSRI) survey on ethics and youth will be posted this fall at www.girlscouts.org/research.