Parenting Solutions: Not Knowing Right from Wrong (page 4)
Has difficulty deciphering right from wrong, chronically lies or steals, can't be trusted, blames others for wrongdoing, won't accept responsibility for wrongdoing
The Change to Parent For
Your child learns right from wrong, internalizes your family's good values, and develops a strong sense of morality that helps him act right even in the face of temptation or without your guidance.
Question: "I found a video game that doesn't belong to him in my eight-year-old son's room. I'm positive he stole it from the grocery store. He has everything he wants, so how do I handle it?"
Answer: How parents react to their child's misbehavior can be destructive or productive in helping him learn right from wrong. Responding appropriately to his wrongdoing makes a parent's job especially significant when it comes to stretching conscience. Here are my Four R's of Moral Discipline to help your son learn from his stealing episode. You can also use these four points with almost any misbehavior to help your child understand right from wrong.
- Respond so as to help the child think through his actions. You might ask, "Explain what happened," "Why did you do it?" "What made you do it?" "How did you think it would turn out?" "Did it turn out as you had hoped?" "What would you do differently?"
- Review why the behavior is wrong. You might ask, "Do you think stealing is right or wrong?" "Why shouldn't you take something from a store or anywhere else?" "Can you think of other reasons why a kid shouldn't steal?" "Why do you think I'd be upset?"
- Reflect on the victim. Help your child imagine what it would be like to be in the victim's place. "Let's think about the man who owns the grocery store. How do you think he feels about his property being taken?" "How would you feel if you had to pay for things someone else took from you?" "Would it be fair if you had to use your salary to pay for it?"
- Right the wrong to stretch conscience. Brainstorm together a few options that guide your son to right the wrong and return the game because he knows it's the right thing to do. "You know that what you did was wrong, so let's think of what you can do to make things right."
Your goal is to stretch your son's conscience so that he understands the full impact of his actions, including the victim's feelings. Moral growth evolves gradually, so don't expect overnight changes, but instead find simple daily ways to use the Four R's to boost his moral growth.
Strong conscience—that magnificent inner voice that helps us know right from wrong— is what lays the foundation for decent living, solid citizenship, and ethical behavior and what every parent wants for his or her child. But according to recent polls, the general public believes we aren't faring so well in nurturing our children's moral growth. A recent Newsweek poll found that almost half of Americans believe that we have grown lax about enforcing moral standards;66another survey revealed that 93 percent believe that parents have failed to teach children honesty, respect, and responsibility.67Those results are especially alarming these days because our kids receive so many conflicting moral messages in the media and among peers that too often counter our values. But research also clearly shows that parents play a significant role in nurturing their children's moral growth, because morality is learned, and that learning starts right at home.
Teach Kids That Conscience Can Be Stretchable
Columbia University: For the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she's now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise in a series of experiments on hundreds of school-age students.65 Her research found that kids generally have two views about goodness, and those views can significantly affect moral growth. One group believes that goodness is basically fixed: people are invariably good or bad. The other group has a "goodness can be improved" mind-set, so that if a person does something wrong, it doesn't make him "bad," so long as he makes amends and resolves to do better next time. Dweck also found that kids in this group are less judgmental of others and try to set things right and learn from their wrong. The lesson from this research: teach your child that conscience is like a muscle that can be stretched, and whenever he misbehaves, emphasize that he can right his wrong with a little effort and that doing so will also increase his potential for goodness.
This entry offers proven strategies to help your child learn right from wrong, develop a strong conscience, and act right even in the face of temptation. Only then will our kids really be able to do what Jiminy Cricket advises Pinocchio: "Always let your conscience be your guide." After all, the only real barometer of good parenting is for our kids to act right without us. So let's roll up our sleeves and get started.
Pay Attention to This!
Could It Be Conduct Disorder?
Most kids will stretch the truth or take something that doesn't belong to them every now and then, but if such behaviors become a pattern, watch out. These chronic and habitual signs may indicate a more serious behavioral problem called Conduct Disorder, which requires an evaluation by a child or adolescent psychologist or psychiatrist:68
- Inability to give or receive affection; lack of long-term childhood friends; difficulty trusting
- Cruelty to animals; hurting peers or others emotionally or physically, relishing their pain
- Little or no remorse, guilt, or shame for wrongdoing or hurtful behavior
- Habitual stealing, lying, shoplifting, vandalism, truancy
- Eye contact abnormalities; won't look you in the eye
- Destructiveness: sets fires; is preoccupied with violence, blood, and gore
- Chronically disobedient; persistently displays little respect for you or other family members
Signs and Symptoms
Assuming that your child is developmentally capable of understanding right from wrong, the following are some signs of a weak or underdeveloped conscience:
- Won't accept blame: has trouble admitting mistakes or saying he's sorry when wrong; refuses to make amends or see the need to do so when he causes physical or emotional injury; tries to attribute his error to others
- Has trouble deciphering right from wrong: has difficulty identifying wrong behavior or understanding why it was wrong; needs admonitions or reminders as to how to act right; doesn't know how to turn a wrong action into a right one
- Is dishonest: lies and is frequently untrustworthy despite his understanding of honesty and his developmental maturity; can't be counted on to keep his word
- Fails to see consequences: fails to recognize consequences of improper behavior, makes unwise choices without thinking through the outcome
- Is frequently in trouble: knows how to act right but continues to behave inappropriately
- Lacks guilt: lacks a feeling of shame or guilt about wrongdoing
- Is easily swayed: knows the right way to act but is easily pressured by others not to act right
Step 1. Early Intervention
- Commit to raising a moral child. Start by intentionally aiming to produce a moral child with solid character. Be mindful that you are influential and that conscience is formed by your repeated and purposeful daily efforts to raise an ethical child. After all, parents who raise children with strong consciences don't do so by accident.
- Be a strong moral example. Kids learn moral standards by watching your choices and reactions and hearing your casual comments. So what you do in those little ordinary moments of life are powerful conscience lessons for your child. For instance: how you treat your family, friends, neighbors, and strangers; what movies you watch and the kinds of books and television shows you choose; how you react to everyday moral conflicts, such as your child's cheating, his friend's lying, the neighbor's littering. These are all decisions and characteristics kids watch closely, so make sure the behaviors your child picks up on are ones that you want him to copy. One of the greatest questions to ask yourself at the end of each day is: "If I were the only example my child has from whom to learn right from wrong, what would he have learned today?"
- Develop a close, mutually respectful relationship with your child. Studies find that kids are most influenced by those persons toward whom they feel the strongest attachment and deepest respect. They are also more likely to copy these individuals' moral beliefs. So one of the surest ways to nurture your child's conscience is to develop a close, loving relationship. Just make sure the relationship is mutually respectful: you treat your child with love and respect, and he treats you the same way in return. Of course, building that kind of relationship clearly takes one-to-one personal, uninterrupted time, but doing so is the best way to ensure that your child's primary moral instructor is you. It's the stuff good parenting is all about.
- Expect and demand moral behaviors. Experts find that parents who raise moral kids expect their kids to act morally and even demand that they do. Chances are that the kids will, simply because their parents require that they do. The best moral expectations are those that are high yet reachable and are explicitly communicated to kids. Once those expectations are set, parents must stick to them and not back down. Hang tough!
- Identify your core family values. Pretend that your children are grown. What are the two or three most important moral beliefs (such as perseverance, compassion, respect, integrity, honesty) you want them to remember from their childhood that will be etched in their conscience? Those are your core family values—the ones you hold most dear, reinforce most, and never deviate from.
- Create family mantras. Many parents create simple family mantras that incorporate your identified core values. Here are a few examples: "Everyone in our family is always expected to be honest with one another." "In this home, we will always treat one another kindly and act just as we would like to be treated by others." "We talk to one another respectfully with words that build each other up and don't put each other down." "We also honor and respect each other's privacy and property." The idea is to repeat your mantras over and over until your children not only can recite them without you but also internalize them.
Step 2. Rapid Response
- Uncover the reason. This is often the hardest part: stay calm and be objective to determine why your child's conscience is underdeveloped. Observe your kid in different settings and ask the opinion of adults you trust. Here are reasons for a weaker conscience. Check those that apply to your child or situation:
- Immaturity. Your child is not yet developmentally capable of moral reasoning or behavior.
- Poor moral examples. Parents, coaches, teachers, relatives, friends, or those your child looks up to—such as celebrities, sports heroes—exhibit weak conscience or poor modeling.
- Weak parental influence. The parent-child relationship is based on a lack of respect; there's a weak, distant, or ineffective parenting influence or an unstable or dysfunctional family life.
- No accountability. Your child has not been required to make amends for an obvious wrongdoing; he has never been held accountable for his actions, or is allowed to get away with moral infractions.
- Flawed early attachment. Your child experienced prebirth trauma or alcohol or substance abuse from mother, early childhood trauma, or extreme negligence; there was a lack of parental bonding or early parental love; the child has an attachment disorder.
- Permissive parenting. Your child has rarely been disciplined for wrongdoing; there are no rules or inconsistently enforced rules; he has grown up with conflicting parental discipline styles; he is poorly supervised, so he gets into trouble.
- Experience or witnessing of cruelty. Your child has been emotionally or physically abused, or repeatedly bullied; he has experienced severe cruelty, prejudice; he has witnessed or been coached in cruelty.
- Neurological impairment or emotional disorder. Your child's conscience has been hindered by brain injury or trauma, emotional disturbance, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or other cognitive handicap.
- Too strict of parenting. Your child has been raised with too harsh or corporal-style discipline; he has experienced "conditional" parenting, threatened with the withholding of love or approval if he doesn't behave; he's been shamed into acting right.
- Attention getting. Misbehaves, whether on purpose or unintentionally, as a cry for help or an attempt to gain approval or love.
- Peer pressure. Your child knows right from wrong but is easily swayed by peers and goes along with the crowd due to having few friends or weak social skills, or wanting to fit in.
- Stress or hardship. Your child is experiencing parental discord, financial or family instability.
- Weak family values. Family values, spirituality, religion, moral expectations, or even just discussion about knowing right from wrong has been infrequent, nonexistent, or deemed irrelevant.
- Don't excuse wrong behavior. If you excuse your child's behavior, let him off the hook, or allow him to get away with the wrong, he only learns that he doesn't have to be accountable. So never let your child get away with doing the wrong thing. Instead use moral discipline as your opportunity to stretch your child's conscience and make sure he understands that he will be held accountable. With a young child or first-time offender, just reasoning with the child may be enough. For some kids, setting a mild consequence is what is required for them to take your moral standards seriously. But just remember that consciencebuilding consequences should always fit the crime, be age appropriate, and help the child learn from the mistake so as to not repeat the offense.
- Get on board with other adults. If your child has a pattern of chronic or intentional wrongdoing, then you need a new behavior response. Call a meeting with his teachers and develop what you agree to be the best discipline approach. The key is to be consistent together so that your child recognizes that his wrongdoing won't be tolerated. For chronic and egregious behavioral offenses, such as lying, stealing, fighting, truancy, bullying, and deception, create a simple way (e-mail, phone, or note) to check up each day with the adult in charge (coach, day-care worker, grandparent, babysitter, teacher) so your child knows you are serious. (Do ask the teacher how she would like to be contacted.) For less serious offenses, the behavior can be monitored weekly, but don't let up until you see a steady improvement.
- Get an outside opinion. If your child continues to hurt others (and even relishes their pain), doesn't take ownership for serious wrong actions, or chooses to defy your family standards, or if the behavior pattern escalates, seek the immediate help of a trained mental health professional. Don't wait.
Step 3. Develop Habits for Change
- Emphasize empathy. Nurturing empathy is essential to stretching conscience because a child's heart and mind work together to help him do the right thing.69 An easy way to develop empathy is to point out the impact of the child's behavior on the other person: "See, you made her cry when you said she couldn't play." Also highlight the victim's feelings: "Now he feels bad." The trick is to help your child imagine what it would be like to be in the victim's place. With a young child, try play-acting how a wrong action like stealing might feel by using a real toy.70 After you "steal" the toy, ask, "How would you feel if somebody really stole that toy from you? Would it be fair? Why not?" With an older child, you could ask, "Would you want somebody to steal from you?" or "Pretend you are your friend, and you just found out somebody took your toy. How would you feel? Why? What would you want to say to the person who took the toy?"
- Share your moral beliefs. Speaking frequently to your child about values and beliefs is called direct moral teaching, and studies find that parents who raise kids with strong consciences do it a lot. Look for moral issues and talk about them as they come up. Use every source you can, from TV shows and news events to situations at school, at home, and with friends; tell your kids how you feel about these issues and why. Also use stories rich with moral examples, such as the Bible, Aesop's fables, Pinocchio, Charlotte's Web, The Velveteen Rabbit, or The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, by William J. Bennett. Just make sure your talks are aimed at your child's level of understanding so that he grasps and learns from your moral-building lesson.
- Require your child to "right the wrong." One way to stretch conscience is by having your child recognize that his actions can cause other people distress. Although he can't undo his "wrong," he can let his victims know he is sorry. Here are a few conscience-building ideas that help kids make amends and realize that they will be held accountable for their actions, depending on their age and the severity of the wrong:
- Write a note, draw a picture, call, or go to the victim personally to sincerely apologize.
- List a few alternatives to the misbehavior, choose the best choice, and then practice doing it for a few minutes to ensure that he knows the "right" way.
- Return what was taken, redo what was done under deception, replace or repair what was broken.
- Reinforce the idea of "doing the right thing."Your goal is to help your child ultimately act right without you, and the best way to do so is to reinforce those moments when he does "do the right thing." Praise that stretches conscience has these three elements:
- The reinforcement is earned. Do not ever praise unless it is deserved.
- The praise names the virtuous behavior: "That was honest … kind … responsible … respectful."
- The praise describes the specific moral action in a sincere and enthusiastic way so that the child understands what was "right" and knows you approve. "That was being honest. I know it's hard to admit mistakes, but you did. I'm proud of you."
What To Expect By Stages And Ages
Conscience develops in a series of six predictable stages, and a child's experiences and abilities significantly affect its development.71Understanding those stages and how children acquire moral growth is enormously helpful in your daily parenting. Check out the recommendations in the More Helpful Advice box and commit to reviewing just one book about moral development so you can align your parenting to fit proven conscience-stretching practices.
Preschooler Conscience starts to develop at this age, but preschoolers are egocentric by nature, so what they "want" is usually what's "right." They will try to get their way without considering the feelings or thoughts of others: "Mommy, get off the phone. I need my lunch now!" They are also prone to thinking of morality in terms of either reward and punishment or what will bring them pleasure, regardless of consequences: "I'm not teasing Jena so I won't have to miss Barney." Preschoolers act right to avoid punishment ("I won't do this, or Mommy will send me to time-out") and to please Mom and Dad. They often believe that thinking about something can make it come true, and most will lie—or stretch the truth in their favor—in order to appear good to the people they love most.72
School Age Younger school-age kids are still concrete thinkers, and though they won't admit it, they need to be told what's right and wrong. They are prone to behave morally when it meets their needs and occasionally the needs of others, and only then if there is an exchange of favors. "I'll let you use my bike if I can use your scooter." A big concern is still "What's in it for me?" Media (especially movies and television) begin to become moral in- fluences, so monitor what your child consumes. By the age of six or seven, children make moral judgments on the basis of how much damage was done regardless of intention. By the age of seven or eight, they begin to make moral judgments based on intention.
Tween Friendships and "fitting in" are dominant influencers, so tweens begin to seek social approval. Good behavior is what makes others happy and is also approved of by them. "I'm going to be really nice to Joshua because it makes Mom happy. Then maybe she'll rent me a movie." Peer pressure peaks and can cause kids to stray from what they know their conscience says is wrong. Tweens start to pull away from parents and toward friends, but home values are still paramount if parents continue to stay connected and influential. Beware: kids at this age are quick to notice hypocrisy and moral inconsistency in adult behavior, so be careful to practice what you preach. Capitalize on their strong sense of justice by involving them in community service or exposing them to unfairness or injustice, which will help activate conscience.
One Simple Solution
Create a "Conscience Test" for Your Child to Use
One way to help plant a strong voice inside your child's head is to use the example of a real person who exemplifies conscience and your family's spiritual or religious beliefs (such as Jesus Christ, Buddha, Gandhi, or Mohammed). Teach your child about that person's life and what he or she stands for. Then anytime your child is confronted with a moral dilemma, encourage him to ask his conscience what the person would do in that situation. For instance: "What would Jesus [Buddha or Mohammed] do?" Some parents just say the initials: "WWJD?" ("What would Jesus do?") The key is to pose that one test over and over until your child has internalized it as his own inner reference and can finally use the test to guide his actions without you.
One Parent's Answer
A mom from Denver shares:
Our six-year-old foster son, Tyler, seemed to always be in trouble and was developing a low opinion of himself. Every time I praised a "good" behavior, he would discount it and call himself a "bad boy." If he wouldn't "hear" his good qualities, I would show them to him. Using a small photo album, I made a scrapbook of Tyler's "goodnesses" using photos and magazine cutouts: his kindness toward animals, loyalty to his family, determination in soccer, assertiveness in saying his point of view, and prayerfulness in church. I presented the scrapbook to him and told him of all his virtuous qualities and pointed to the pictures in the book. My son kept the album under his pillow for weeks, and whenever he had a hard day he plopped himself on the bed and "read" his book about the "Good Tyler."
More Helpful Advice
Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing, by Michele Borba
Raising Good Children: From Birth Through the Teenage Years, by Dr. Thomas Lickona
Right vs. Wrong: Raising a Child with a Conscience, by Barbara M. Stilwell, Matthew R. Galvin, and S. Mark Kopta
The Moral Child, by William Damon
The Moral Intelligence of Children, by Robert Coles
Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, by William Kilpatrick
Washington Virtual Academies
Tuition-free online school for Washington students.
- Coats and Car Seats: A Lethal Combination?
- Kindergarten Sight Words List
- Signs Your Child Might Have Asperger's Syndrome
- Child Development Theories
- GED Math Practice Test 1
- 10 Fun Activities for Children with Autism
- Social Cognitive Theory
- Why is Play Important? Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development, Creative Development
- The Homework Debate
- Problems With Standardized Testing