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Teaching Young Children Morals

Every child wants to be good and to be loved.

Four-year-old Maddie is lying in her bed talking to her mom. Feeling ashamed, she keeps her face covered with her blanket.

Maddie: Mom. I think I'm becoming one of those bad kids.

Mom: Why do you think you're bad?

Maddie: I can't tell you.

Mom: Did you do something that you felt was wrong?

Maddie: (Almost in a whisper.) Today I was chewing on my new library book.

Every child wants to be good and to be loved. This is the cornerstone of a child's moral development. When your child pulls his cat's tail and you get mad, he may question you throughout the day, "Am I bad?” or “Do you still love me?” He may even lie and say he didn't do it, because he fears losing your love. Your child may beseech your forgiveness by saying repeatedly, "I try to be good.”

As her parent, you may find it hard to believe that she is so concerned with right and wrong when she takes that forbidden cookie, lies, or hits her brother for the millionth time. (Doesn't she know the rules by now?)

You may even get frightened when you see this behavior. You want him to know the difference between right and wrong. You want him to be honest, polite, trustworthy, giving, kind, and loving. In a scary world such as ours, where many people behave as if they have no morals, you may be fearful that he won't learn these positive values

This fear may cause you to overreact and assign grown-up meanings to your child's actions. For example, when you see your four-year-old taking candy from a shelf at the store, you might think, “Oh my goodness- she is going to be a thief!” Sticking out her tongue at Grandma? “Oh no. She's going to grow up to be a rude adult!” Kicking a classmate at school? “She is going to be an ax murderer!”

The truth is, you can relax. The reason your child is still engaging in this behavior is developmental, not because of a lack of moral fiber fiber. He's just not emotionally mature, as yet.

Young children are often egocentric. They are guided by their impulses and wishes, so they will have a hard time if you ask them to stop jumping on the couch. They're having too much fun. Even older children display similar behaviors.

It is hard for children to gain control over their impulses. Even as adults we can identify with this difficulty, if we think about how tricky it is to guide our hand past a luscious brownie when we're hungry, and choose a banana instead.

Around the age of five or six, children have developed a conscience–which is actually an internalized set of rules that you have taught them. Your regulations become her inner stop sign and will direct her. (Though it may be hard for you to believe, someday she'll actually throw those dirty socks in the hamper.) Initially, she adopts your rules to please you. Later on, following these directives becomes a part of who she is.

You can help this process along by setting clear, reasonable limits and modeling your values. If you want your child to be respectful, treat him, your family, and the neighbors respectfully. (He is watching.) If you want him to be honest, never lie to him. If you want him to be responsible for his actions and apologize, then you must apologize to him when you make a mistake. If you say please and thank you, he will be polite. Your child loves you, so he will identify with you and behave as you do. Your ideas will become his, and guide his behavior.

In the meantime, sometimes she will be able to follow the rules and behave positively. She will use her words and say, “I'm angry,” rather than hit, or ask for another piece of candy, rather than sneak one. If she transgresses she may even say, “I'm sorry.”

He will practice be saying the rules aloud, “It's not right to put your hand out the car window, right?” and cautioning others about the regulations, “You have to wear your bicycle helmet.” He will also report to the adults, “Ooh. Brother said a bad word.” Tattle-taling, though historically frowned upon, is actually a sign that he realizes the rules are important, he's trying hard to comply, and his conscience is developing.

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