Human beings are always searching for simple, easy ways to grasp complex and important ideas. It’s not an accident that for thousands of years, in every culture and language in the world, people have been sharing short, pithy sayings that capture eternal truths in a few well-chosen words. In fact, one such saying has found its way into nearly every single religious tradition on earth.

“Do unto others and you would have others do unto you,” is probably one of the most universally acknowledged “moral aphorisms” of all time. This powerful idea is echoed in nearly every culture in the world. The Hebrew Bible taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Islam teaches in the Koran, “No one of you is a believer unless he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” Buddhism teaches, “Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.” Hinduism reminds us, Do nothing to your neighbor which you would not have him do to you thereafter.” And Confucius taught, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others.”

There is a powerful and compelling reason that one of the most universally effective strategies for incorporating a strong moral and ethical context into the daily consciousness of your children is to teach them short, easy-to-remember moral aphorism. We are confronted with moral dilemmas throughout our lives. They may be as simple as getting too much change back from a store, or whether to report extra income on our taxes. They may be as “ordinary” as whether to reveal some information that a friend shared in confidence or whether to run a red light when no one is looking. Regardless of the challenge itself, one of the most enduring and effective strategies for preparing our children to cope with a lifetime of moral choices, is the use of these moral aphorisms. It is like arming them with a full ethical quiver of sharply honed spiritual arrows.

Everyone knows a few such sayings – words of wisdom that “my mother used to say,” or “my father always told me.” My personal favorite from my own childhood comes from my grandfather. He always used to say, “Don’t wish for fish, fish for fish.” I’ve used that saying in my mind a thousand times when facing the natural tendency to merely dream about accomplishing something. It has always inspired me to get up and do something about my dreams and make them happen. “If it is to be, it’s up to me” is a similar empowering saying.

These moral aphorism and old adages, are a commonly accepted way to pass along to our children the best of our shared moral traditions, and can be so useful as ethical guidelines for a wide variety of ethical situations.

When these ideas are continually spoken, taught and reinforced in our daily lives by parents and other significant adults, we often aren’t even fully aware that we have internalized them until when confronted with specific situations we find them simply “popping up” into our consciousness.

When a local homeless family found and returned a wallet to the police with cash and a plane ticket inside, one of the “reasons” they gave for doing the honest, ethical act, was that they had always been taught “Honesty is the best policy.” The moral imperative was simply there, unavoidably staring them in the face automatically when the moral challenge arose. In fact, this particular person told the reporters that she kept hearing her mother’s voice in her head saying, “Pauline, do the right thing.”

Most of us are lucky enough to have a similar internalized parent in our minds, reminding us with those short, pithy sayings to live in a caring, morally responsible way. Sometimes it’s not a parent’s voice that we hear but a grandparent, or teacher or other significant adult in our lives. The point is that while moral modeling and complex verbal lessons are what transmit values, it’s the moral aphorisms, catchy reminders of the behavior that supports these values, that spring into our consciousness at those moments when our ethics are being challenged by life itself.

There are dozens of such moral adages – hundreds I’m sure. Over the years, parents have shared just a few of the ones that they remember from their own childhoods with me. Here are fifteen such moral aphorisms that seem to be among the most common and popular. You might want to think of your own, write them down and remember to teach them to your children on a regular basis. If you do, your children will be armed with your personal moral advice for the rest of their life.
  1. “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
  2. “Your word is your bond.”
  3. “Virtue is its own reward”
  4. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
  5. “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
  6. “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember what you said.”
  7. “Laugh and the world laughs with you.”
  8. “Even a small star shines in the darkness.”
  9. “It’s always darkest just before the dawn.”
  10. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
  11. “A kind word turns away anger.”
  12. “Lost time is never found again.”
  13. “Gold and love affairs are hard to hide.”
  14. “If you don’t open your mouth, no flies will get in.”
  15. “Don’t run after a man or a bus; there’ll always be another one.”
Find appropriate moments to share familiar aphorism with your children. These easy-to-understand expressions of challenging ideas can be useful guidelines for them throughout their lives. Don’t forget, though, that powerful sayings in all the world’s languages will not create ethical children unless they reflect behavior your children are experiencing through the everyday acts of their adult models – you.

Old adages can never take the place of personal example and conscious moral instruction. But it is satisfying to know that when your children are faced with moral decisions, they will hear the inner voice of conscience reminding them with an appropriate short saying to “do the right thing” – and the voice they hear will be your own.