Throughout their lives, kids are faced with a series of moral choices. Your job is to point them in the right direction.
By Peg Rosen; Photo by Misha Gravenor
Following the Rules
As parents, we all have different hopes and dreams for our children. But every mom and dad wants to raise a child with a strong moral character. We want our kids to know good from bad, right from wrong. We hope they’ll learn to behave morally and ethically, to grow up to be considerate, honest, compassionate, and kind. In short, we want our children to develop a conscience — a powerful inner voice that will keep them on the right path and zap them with a dose of guilt whenever they stray.
But kids aren’t born with a conscience, so the job of building one is ours. “It’s a process parents need to work on day after day, year after year,” says Parents advisor Michele Borba, EdD, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know. “You need to constantly articulate right from wrong, and to model appropriate behavior. Eventually, your child will internalize your messages, and they will become the core of his character.”
The lessons take hold gradually: Toddlers realize that good behavior makes their parents happy; preschoolers follow rules so they won’t get into trouble. But kids don’t embrace the highest form of conscience — the idea of feeling morally obligated to do what’s right — until they reach young adulthood. And as our scandal-riddled headlines attest, some people never reach that point. So what can you do to up the odds? How can you ensure that your children will follow your rules — and society’s — when you’re not around to remind them?
Love and Attention, Demand Respect
Shower your baby with love and attention. Children can’t understand the idea of right and wrong until they’re about 2. But building a nurturing bond with your baby from the start will make it easier to teach him the concept when the time is right. “If you tune in to your baby and respond to his needs early on, he will be more inclined to listen to you and be guided by you as he gets older,” says Grazyna Kochanska, PhD, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City.
In a long-term study, Dr. Kochanska found that babies who had developed a secure bond with their mothers by 14 months were more receptive to discipline — much of which involves teaching basic moral rules, like “Don’t hit others,” “Help pick up toys,” and “Let’s share.” At ages 4 and 5, these children showed a markedly more developed sense of conscience: They were more reluctant to break their mother’s rules when placed alone in tempting situations. What’s more, a child who feels valued gets the broader message that everyone deserves the same respect and kindness, says Marvin W. Berkowitz, PhD, professor of character education at the University of Missouri, in St. Louis. “They make the connection that it’s wrong to do things that are hurtful to others. And that’s the essence of a good conscience.”
Demand respect from the start. If you let your kids get away with being disrespectful, even as toddlers, they will quickly dismiss your moral authority. “If they don’t respect your authority, they won’t respect your rules, examples, and moral teachings,” says psychologist Thomas Lickona, PhD, professor of education at the State University of New York, in Cortland. So make your demands for respect strong and clear. That means setting rules and not caving when your children balk. You can begin commanding respect even before your child can talk. “If your 16-month-old gives you a swat, responding with an emphatic ‘No!’ will send him the message,” Dr. Lickona says. If your 3-year-old screams “I hate you” or your 7-year-old talks back, correct him immediately. You could say, “You are not allowed to speak to me in that way, even if you are upset.” Equally crucial, your children need to feel you respect them. Explain why you set the rules you do. Listen to what your kids have to say before punishing them, and be willing to admit when you’ve made a mistake. Try — at every possible turn — to make your children feel that you are dealing with them fairly. “Kids who are raised this way tend to be more compliant, perhaps because they don’t feel manipulated and resentful,” Dr. Berkowitz says. They are also more likely to embrace your moral teachings if they can understand the reasoning behind them.
From Empathy to Devotion
Emphasize empathy. Trying to cultivate a conscience in a child without nourishing his sense of empathy is like trying to grow a flower in barren soil. After all, if you can’t put yourself in another person’s shoes, you will never feel compelled to treat others the way you want them to treat you. Babies show signs of empathy from the beginning — crying when other babies cry, smiling back at you when you smile at them. It’s up to you to develop that quality by tuning your kids in to what others feel. If your preschooler bops her friend on the head with a Barbie, make sure she realizes that her friend is crying. Ask how she would feel if her friend hit her.
With older children, you can use current events to help make them more sensitive to others. “Let your grade-schooler watch coverage of a hurricane or earthquake on television, for instance, and ask her if she can imagine what it would be like to lose her home,” Dr. Borba suggests. Helping her understand what other people are going through will show her why it’s nice to call a sick friend or bring cookies to an elderly neighbor.
Practice what you preach. If you want your kids to be decent, moral human beings, you have to walk the walk. If you lie about your child’s age to avoid paying full bus fare or say nasty things about your neighbors behind their back, how can you expect your child to behave any differently? But being a role model isn’t enough. “You must also explicitly tell children what the right thing to do is,” Dr. Lickona says. So make your moral expectations clear and constantly remind your kids of them. “Use mantras like, ‘In our family, we’re always honest with each other.’ Or ‘We treat others the way we want to be treated,'” Dr. Borba says. Point out everyday examples of honesty, perseverance, and kindness — on TV, at school, at home — and talk about why these values are important. Call attention to your own moral behavior too. Say, “You know, it’s tempting to go a little faster than the speed limit, but I’d rather be a little late for a piano lesson than risk getting into an accident and hurting someone.” Most important, acknowledge your child’s good deeds: “How great that you remembered to pick up your toys! I’m so proud of you.”
Learn the art of moral discipline. When your child does something wrong — when she colors on the wall with your best MAC lipstick, when he “finds” a Spider-Man action figure in his friend’s cubby at school — it’s disappointing. “But these are some of your very best teaching opportunities,” Dr. Borba says. The key: Don’t just tell your children their actions were wrong — also help them understand why. Tell your preschooler that she made her friend cry when she said her dress was ugly. Then drive the rule home: “We don’t say mean things to people. That wasn’t nice.” If you give her a time-out, go over everything again when the punishment is over. If you think your child will understand, delve a bit deeper: Ask her how she would feel if her friend said mean things to her. And it’s even okay if she feels a little guilty. “When a child has that lingering sense that she shouldn’t have done something, it’s a sign of a healthy, functioning conscience,” Dr. Lickona says. Finally, help her figure out how to make things better. Maybe all she needs to do is apologize. Or perhaps she can compliment her friend’s shoes or pretty hair. This important step of restitution not only shows your child that she can alleviate someone’s “bad” feelings by doing something nice, it also helps her realize that she is capable of resolving problems — and that builds self-esteem.
Devote time to your kids. Sure, the soccer team will help make a kid well-rounded. So will chess club, gymnastics classes, and the countless other activities you dash him off to each day. But having plenty of downtime with you is even more critical to developing his character. “The best way to have enough opportunities to shape your child’s conscience is to spend as much time with him as you can,” says Barbara Stilwell, MD, coauthor of Right vs. Wrong: Raising a Child with a Conscience.
When you’re together, look for spontaneous opportunities to teach your values: At the supermarket, invite an elderly woman to go ahead of you in line. At breakfast, point out the newspaper article about the taxi driver who found a hundred-dollar bill in his cab and returned it to the guy who left it there. As you tuck your children into bed each night, tell them that you appreciate how kind and considerate they were that day and how you know they will continue to behave nicely in the future. With that kind of support and encouragement, their conscience will develop — and thrive.
One of the best ways to build a conscience in kids is to set limits — and consequences — that help drive lessons home. Try this “4-R Strategy” developed by Parents advisor Michele Borba, EdD.
Unhappy about sharing his sandbox toys, your 4-year-old angrily yanks his favorite purple pail out of his playmate’s hand. The friend bursts into tears.
RESPOND calmly and encourage your child to think about his actions. You might say, “Why did you take the pail from Sam like that?”
REVIEW why the behavior is wrong. Say, “It isn’t nice when you don’t share toys with your friends.”
REFLECT on the behavior’s effects. Ask, “Did you see how sad Sam looked when you took the pail from him? How would you feel if he took a toy away from you?”
RIGHT THE WRONG Say, “How do you think you could make Sam feel better? Maybe you could give him a hug and let him play with your pail for a little while.”
Copyright ? 2006. Reprinted with permission from the March 2006 issue of Parents magazine