How to Teach Children Right From Wrong
How to Teach Children Right From Wrong
"My 5 year old has just started school. Before school she was always polite, caring, helpful. Since going to school, while she still appears to be so with her teachers (so they say), she now really pushes the boundaries at home.
Some kids at school have taught her to swear, talk back, talk about sex in very broad terms. She talks back and while fundamentally she is still a wonderful and very smart little girl, her smarts have turned into "smarty-pants".
How do I help her to make the right choices about good vs. naughty (one of her friends got her to play hookie ....at 5 years old?!); of what is acceptable and not, when she is away from me and faced with those choices without me being there to guide ?"
Hmmm, how indeed?
Let's look at the underlying principles.
Kids, like you and me, are doing their best to succeed in life. So their behaviors are their attempts to get good results for themselves, as they themselves would define them. Those "good results" might be to satisfy basic urges such as hunger and warmth, they might be to get approval and love - from their parents, or from their friends, or they might be simply to have fun and excitement.
Whatever their priority need at the time, the behavior they use is their best attempt to meet the need. Of course, not all behaviors are successful - and that is the whole learning process.
Constantly through life we are experimenting with behaviors to find the ones that work best for us. In choosing what behaviors to experiment with, we take input from past experiences, from what we have been told, and from what we have seen others do (in real life and on TV) and we combine this with the skills, abilities, and personality that we have.
From all of this we get a range of possible behaviors, and out of those we pick what we hope will serve us best. Once we find behaviors that seem to pay off well for us, then we tend to stick with them. The more we repeat them, and the more often they work, the more firmly they will be entrenched as our default behavior. So, your little 5 year old sweetheart is experimenting!
Having just arrived at school, her world has opened to a whole new range of possible behaviors that she had never considered before! That's pretty exciting in itself! Now, she wonders, which of these behaviors will work for me?
Which will get me fun, approval, friends, love, food, whatever?
So she tries them to see. Many of these behaviors, once tried, will be abandoned. Some will be kept, and incorporated into her normal lifestyle. Which will they be?
That depends on what outcomes she experiences. At this age the approval of parents is pretty important, so your response to them will certainly be an influence. But so too will be outside influences, such as explicit rewards or punishments, the approval of teachers and, of course, her friends.
How much influence do you, as a parent, have over this?
At this age, quite a bit. When they are teenagers, a whole lot less. Your influence is through two means.
1. Your emotional response - your approval or otherwise of her behaviors.
2. Your control of external factors. You can decide what school she goes to, and the types of people she will meet at school and in your neighborhood. You can also impose rewards, punishments, and constraints (such as permissions to do or not do activities). Putting all this together, and taking a strategic overview, these are the types of questions you would want to be asking yourself:
Does this look like it is just an experimental phase that will almost certainly pass?
If so, then don't get too stressed about it all - enjoy the phase of watching your kids growing up and exploring the world. (Hey, I remember sneaking out from home at about 7 to go and play in the school playground, in the dark, at about 9pm.
I even put pillows in my bed to deceive my parents. And I turned out okay ... I think...) Bear in mind that if you over-react to things like her swearing that may, in itself, actually make the behavior seems MORE exciting rather than less. Generally, "chilling out" is the better way to go.
If it looks like becoming more serious or more entrenched, then you need to take some sort of action. How do you know which it is? That calls for
judgment. Look at your own parenting first - are you dong the very best you can?
Are you providing good role models?
Yours will be the greatest influence in her life. Then look at the school and neighborhood. Do the kids, by and large, turn out okay?
Or is everyone on drugs by the time they are 13?
Speak with other parents and teachers. Most schools have a "culture" and it may just be that this is the culture in this school
- i.e. that lots of kids go through this phase and then settle down, rather like the toilet jokes when they are 7 and 8. Or it may be that the teachers are greatly concerned.
You cannot control every factor in their lives. You cannot guarantee that they will learn right from wrong. But you can increase the chances. And, as ever, you do that by being as good, and strategic, a parent as you can.
author of How to Teach Children Right From Wrong is Dr Noel Swanson MD
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