Learning Right From Wrong (page 3)

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

Teach by ongoing dialogue and discussion

Make communication a priority. Take time to explain your decisions and motives and listen to your child's point of view.

Children have to make their way through a thicket of contradictory messages, so be clear and allow for more than one discussion as situations arise.

Make your expectations clear. Make children aware that their opinions are respected, but remain firm in your decisions. When you set limits enforce them.

Allow children to participate in decisions which affect the family. When discussing a child's behavior, focus attention to the way in which the feelings of the other person are affected.

Use television scripts to discuss possible alternative endings to situations.

Role play: play pretend games in which children play several roles, helping them experience other points of view.

Discuss books your children are reading, focusing on the choices faced by the characters.

Begin to talk about attitudes towards sex, drugs and alcohol when children are young.

When good kids do the wrong thing

The very young, who don't really understand what rules are, should not be punished for taking something, although they must be told not to. (See Aretha, above)

Don't overreact to broken rules or minor infractions at the ages of 5 or 6. It's likely that the child misbehaved on the spur of the moment. At this age children may see their own behavior as correct (e.g. lying) if it gets them what they want. Try and ascertain the reason for the lie. Tell them their behavior is wrong and point out the consequences.

Around 4th or 5th grade, when academic demands increase, some kids feel the pressure to get good grades and will take short cuts. (See Sidney, above) Peer pressure also becomes important and kids may do something wrong if they think everyone else is doing it. Have an open discussion about cheating, be clear about why it's wrong, and that it won't be tolerated. Help children understand that they may experience conflict between immediate satisfaction, peer approval and doing the right thing. Make sure your child is not under undue pressure.

Teach children how to say no. Talk about situations in which a child or adolescent might be tempted to drink or use drugs (a party, a sports event, etc.) and whether he might be taunted if he refuses. Role play ways of reacting in such situations. Be involved in your child's life even in adolescence. Involvement doesn't mean insisting that things be done your way. Involvement means knowing your children's friends, attending school meetings, being familiar with their music preferences-all of which show you're interested and you value who they are. Encourage your teenager to volunteer in an after- school or other community program-these actions enable them to appreciate what they have, understand their unique value as a person, and gives them a sense of their ability to contribute to the good of the world.

Staying on track

According to William Damon, Director of the Center for Adolescence at Stanford University, healthy adolescents have a strong, passionate interest in something and a person who inspires them. Confident and compassionate parents have a good chance of raising a confident and compassionate teenager who thinks about moral and ethical issues and gets involved in the community.

References and Related Books

Coles, R. (1998). The Moral Intelligence of Children: How to Raise a Moral Child. New York: Plume Books

Damon, W. (1990). The Moral Child: Nurturing Children's Natural Moral Growth. New York: The Free Press

Damon, W. (1995). The Social World of the Child. New York: The Free Press

Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (1997). The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. New York: Simon and Schuster Kagan,

Jerome. (1994). The Nature of the Child. New York: Basic Books

About the Author

Anita Gurian, Ph. D., Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the NYU Child Study Center, is the Senior Content Editor of, Editor of the NYU Child Study Center Letter, and the author of several books and numerous articles about parenting and child development.


About the NYU Child Study Center

The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at

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