How Do Children Learn Right From Wrong?
Most of what children learn about how to behave is from what we model.
Posted March 7, 2017 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
“Dr. Laura: How will they know right from wrong when they are never taught something will happen when they do wrong?"
In a recent post, we addressed the fact that punishment doesn't actually teach kids right from wrong. In fact, many studies show that punishment just teaches kids not to get caught doing wrong.
So today, let's think about how children actually learn right from wrong.
Little ones want what they want, and they like to be in charge of themselves. But they also depend on us, the parents who care for them, and they trust us to have their best interests at heart. They may not always do what we say, but they will always, eventually, do what we do. So most of what children learn about how to behave is from what we model.
That's why, regardless of what you consciously teach your child, he will learn what he lives.
- When we cheerfully help them clean up the spilled milk, they learn that it isn't an emergency, so they don't need to cry or to blame, and can simply solve the problem.
- When we offer understanding as we say no to their requests, they learn that they won't always get what they want, but they get something better — a mom or dad who always understands.
- When we're there to listen, they learn that life can be tough, but they can always recover and find a better way.
- When we delight in them, they learn that they're of value.
- When we're forgiving of their mistakes, they learn that no one's perfect — but they're more than enough just the way they are.
- When we apologize and make amends, they learn how to repair the damage they do.
- When we try to see their side of things, they try to see our side of things.
- When we believe in their best intentions even when they aren't at their best, they don't want to disappoint us.
- When we're clear about the limits, and give them support to meet those limits, they try hard to meet our expectations.
- When we're compassionate in the face of their upsets, they learn that emotions aren't an emergency and can be managed.
- When we model the emotional regulation and responsible behavior we want from our child, we raise a child we can be proud of.
- When we share with them, heart to heart and without blame, that the dog is hungry because they forgot to feed him, they learn that they never want to hurt a helpless creature again.
- When we help them come up with a system to remind themselves to feed the dog so they don't forget in the future, they learn to manage themselves.
- When we punish them for forgetting to feed the dog, they get angry at us and at the dog, which doesn't motivate them to want to care for him.
- When we scream at them, they learn that tantrums are ok, and they learn to scream at us.
- When we punish them, they learn that's how to solve problems — people with more power are allowed to use it against people with less power.
- When we swear at another driver, they learn incivility, not to mention some embarrassing words.
- When we lie to someone on the phone when they're listening, they learn that dishonesty is ok.
- When we lie about their age to get them into an amusement park, they learn that cheating is ok.
- When we speed in the car, they learn that breaking the law is ok if we don't get caught.
- When we promise to play a game with them and then renege, they learn that promises can be broken.
- When we ignore the feelings that drove their behavior, they learn that there's no one to help them with the big scary feelings that pop out and pressure them to "do bad."
- When we spank them, they learn that bigger people are allowed to hit smaller people.
- When we punish them, they learn that they're bad people — bad for doing wrong, bad for having the bad feelings that made them do wrong, bad for being mad at us for punishing them, and bad because they know they won't be able to stop themselves from doing it again.
Children don't learn right from wrong by being punished any more than they learn red from blue by being punished. Kids learn when we show them red, and also when we show them kindness, responsibility, generosity, honesty, compassion, and all the other things we want them to learn, in action, every day.
When children feel close to their parents, they want to "follow" them. Going against their parents would be going against the most important people in their lives. That's why connection is 90 percent of parenting. Until the child feels the connection, she isn't open to our direction.
Of course, the prefrontal cortex that can keep strong emotions in check to help your child behave is still developing until age 25, so your child won't always make the right choice. But if you're parenting with loving guidance, at least she'll be more likely to want to make the right choice.
Do you have to be perfect? No, of course not. But then you can't expect your child to be perfect, either.
Modeling self-forgiveness and making amends with those you love is part of teaching your child to repair the inevitable small ruptures that happen between humans, even when we love each other. It's part of how you keep your child connected and wanting to "do right."