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Learning Right From Wrong (page 2)

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Oct 22, 2010

The Middle Childhood Years

By 7 or 8 children are guided by a law-and-order orientation; they still understand right/wrong in terms of obedience. They behave because they don't want their parents or other authorities to be angry and punish them. As they mature their conscience or inner voice helps them follow the rules even when there's no adult around to punish or chastise. They are able to foresee the consequences of their behavior. (For example, an 8-year-old realizes that if he stamps on a video game in frustration and anger, there are a series of consequences: the game won't work any more; his parents will be upset; he'll feel bad because he's disappointing his parents; and he'll feel upset by his own bad behavior.) In addition, as children learn to see the world from someone else's point of view they are able to refine their black and white thinking about what's right/wrong; good/bad; polite/rude. In the middle years, children seek social approval and they adhere to expectations because they want to be liked by their peers. They have a strong sense of justice; acts of kindness, generosity, sharing and cooperation are seen as good and lying, cheating, aggression as bad. They come to realize that rules can be flexible; what's fair is more important. Although issues of conscience affect the thinking of children of this age, sometimes concern about being liked by peers is more important than conscience in guiding behavior.

During the years of middle childhood, children move from an orientation to external authority and threats of punishment as criteria for right and wrong to a view that doing the right thing is based on standards of behavior and concern for the welfare of others.

The Adolescent Years

Intellectually, adolescents have the ability to view societal rules and moral situations from different points of view and to integrate different perspectives. They are capable of criticizing established rules that they view as unjust. Concerned about the welfare of others, many adolescents follow their conscience and may act to bring about fairness and justice, ready to accept punishment for their actions. Adolescents spend a good deal of their time independent of their parents, interacting with their peers and need to make decisions about smoking, alcohol, drugs and risk-taking behaviors which test the stability of their sense of values.

In summary, major changes in children's ideas about right and wrong occur as they reorganize their thinking as they mature. The early belief that doing the right thing means adhering to authority gradually changes to the belief that one should act according to ethical notions of fairness.

Yet some children who know that lying, cheating and hurting others are wrong still lie, cheat and hurt others. A combination of factors enters the picture: age, parental influence, social factors, peer influence, stress effects, atypical development of a sense of conscience and, as is currently being researched, wiring in the brain.

Parental influence- what they do matters

Children learn about the world and develop a conscience and sense of values from their parents and others who are close to them. Children tune in to real messages and values and soon realize if what their parents do doesn't match what they say. Parents, dealing simultaneously with family, work and other responsibilities, also have to deal with a number of challenges. Spending time with children is a major challenge; estimates indicate that children in the United States spend l0 to 15 fewer hours of time with their parents than they did 40 years ago. Another challenge for parents is the influence of the media. The increased presence of the media in our lives provides ready access to vast amounts of information and entertainment, bringing with it both good and bad influences. Many programs are entertaining and informative but a growing number reflect disrespectful, antisocial, aggressive behavior, at variance with the values of many parents. What's a parent to do?

Parenting styles-how they affect children's development

The ways in which parents relate to their children falls into certain patterns, and finding the right balance is the key to helping children attain an internal sense of conscience and values. Research has identified basic parenting styles:

1) When parents balance affection, warmth and respect with a firm level of control in the form of limit-setting, children are more likely to be self-respectful, to deal with problems, and to establish a sense of values. (e.g. "We listen to your ideas and opinions as we develop family rules.") This parenting style is known as authoritative.

2) When parents are overly indulgent children often have to struggle to learn the limits of what's acceptable and to develop their inner controls. (e.g. "We will let you find yourselves.") This parenting style is known as permissive.

3) When parents are too controlling and autocratic (e.g. "Do as I say because I say so.") children have difficulty in establishing their own control, sense of social responsibility and their own sense of moral values. This parenting style is known as authoritarian.

Following are some parenting suggestions that may prove helpful in finding the authoritative or middle ground:

Teach by example

Be aware of your own needs and the ways in which your role as a parent is colored by your relationship with your own parents.

Monitor your own behavior in the ordinary situations of daily life; children tune in when adults tell white lies, such as saying you're not at home to avoid certain people, writing an excusal note for school saying the child was sick, when he's really going to visit a relative.

Model helpful and kind behaviors, such as assisting people in need, lending a hand, or giving up your seat to an older and/or handicapped person.

Praise your child for unselfish acts.

Point out the consequences of one's acts for others.

Participate in positive activities such as community service, sports, music, all of which imbue children with a sense of purpose.

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