Teaching Your Child The Difference From Right And Wrong

Michelle Vermillion Lawrence
As I am standing in the check out line, I feel my 3 year old tugging on my leg, “Can I get it mom, can I, please, PLEASE!”
Without even looking to see yet another of his hearts’ desire I say, “No.”
His begging continues as I pay for our cards and finish our transaction.   I tell my son its time to go and start walking towards the door. My ingenious child walks slowly around taunting, “I was just trickin’ ya mom”, his way of letting me know he is pulling a fast one on me.
And indeed he has, as we walk through the door I notice tucked behind his back in his hot little hands is the forbidden desire.
 “Jacob!”, I shout, “stop right there, we did not pay for that, you need to take that back.” 
Astonished, not realizing his error, he states “Why?”
 “…because, that is stealing, when we take something that isn’t ours without buying it! Now march back in there and give it to the cashier”, I stammer. 
Embarrassed, he retorts “No, you!”
“Oh no, mommy didn’t take it, you need to make it right.” I demand. 
Ashamed of his action, he buries his face in his jacket and sheepishly walks over to the counter to turn over the coveted item. He turns and walks swiftly toward me his face now partly showing but his head and shoulders sunk low.
“Let’s go”, I add. The cashier gives an appreciative wink and we quickly exit the store. 
Teaching our children right from wrong is tricky business, especially to inquisitive and impulsive preschoolers.
Developmentally, children between the ages of 2 to 4 believe that whatever they want they will have, they are in a very egocentric stage. Sharing, understanding others feelings, paying for our material desires or appreciating our society’s morals is not quite clear at this age level. Yet, it is up to us, , caretakers and nurturers of the young to introduce guidelines for living a morally conscious life. 
There are several factors which aid in creating a morally conscious . Here are some to consider: 
Children start to develop a sense of right and wrong even before they can verbalize these thoughts. When children are loved and treated fairly, they naturally develop empathy, the ability to care about how another person feels.  is a key ingredient, the foundation, for any moral development that is to follow. 
As parents we can model empathy in our daily life by explaining and labeling feelings of ourselves, our children and others. Praising kind actions, pointing out facial expressions of others or simply asking “ How do you think Susie feels when that happened?” are all ways to nurture your child’s sensitivity to others. 
When we treat others the way we would like to be treated we are showing our children how to be respectful. When children view respect as a daily part of their lives, they learn to be respectful towards themselves as well. Respect implies that every person has worth and dignity.    Without respect preventing violence, injustice a nd hatred is in vain. To help teach respect to your child, talk about respect, explain its meaning to your child. For a preschooler this can be as simple as “respect is using our manners; being nice.” Eliminate rude behavior. When your child is disrespectful, explain that this type of behavior (be specific, name the behavior) is not acceptable.    Resist the urge to continue engagement with your child when acting disrespectfully. If rudeness continues set limitations or a consequence for the behavior. 
Developing your child’s conscience is another ingredient to help distinguish right from wrong. Your conscience is that small voice inside of you that guides you down the path of righteousness or guilt. Promoting an atmosphere for moral growth, discipline from a moral perspective and teaching and living a virtuous life by talking about such traits as honesty, respect, kindness and peacefulness will help foster your child’s strong conscience. 
Self esteem is also a strong pre-requisite for moral behavior. Children who have strong caretaker involvement in their lives seem to have higher self esteem. When a child is seen for who he truly is, strengths and weaknesses, and still unconditionally loved, he is free to explore his own personal growth knowing he has a strong support system. When a child is able to explore and learn more about himself, thus he develops the ability to be courageous and competent in certain area. 
Positive Conditioning
Morality is not something that can be lectured and then hopefully implemented. Morality needs to be a hands-on experience. Forming positive habits condition a child for life long behavior. Giving your child the opportunity to help others encourages his moral behavior. Just like playing an instrument requires hours of practice, morality takes practice. Positive conditioning also means practicing what you preach. Resist the urge to put yourself or others down in front of your children, if you berate yourself and others, how will your children treat themselves or the individuals you degrade?  
Behavior has consequencesThis is a universal lesson in parenting children. The manner in which this is taught can determine your child’s ability to choose right from wrong. Fear, guilt and shame are three traditional manners of disciplining a child. But are traditional ways of effective? Laurence Steinberg of Temple University reports that since the late 1950s “literally hundreds of studies have been conducted that examine acceptance, firmness and autonomy support and their consequences for the child’s development. Steinberg finds that children develop into responsible adults when their parents are accepting and firm, but not stern.* What does this mean? Explaining the feelingsof others rather than using guilt or shame is a step in the right direction. Explaining why the child is being disciplined is another way. Not criticizing publicly, but in private, minimizing humiliation can alsopromote healthy development. Also, make sure the punishment fits the crime. Exaggerated punishment deflates self-esteem. Reinforcing respectful behavior by acknowledging when it happens increases its likelihood. 
Finally, teaching a child right from wrong also extends to being a responsible member of a community and being able to rely on that community to help promote your child’s morality. Instilling a love of contributing to the good of all develops a sense of social responsibility. Volunteering for a social cause, raising money or awareness for a particular passion and getting your child involved are great ways to instill a socially conscious child. Equally, as caretakers we are obligated to select appropriate schools, clubs, organizations and neighborhoods to raise our children which align with our own value system. A majority of our children’s time will be spent with teachers, coaches and peers who will help shape our children’s moral character. Making sure these individuals and organizations value system matches our own is our responsibility.            
Michelle Vermillion Lawrence is a freelance writer and children’s therapist. Her two children, Jacob & Ella guide her daily in the beautiful adventures of parenthood. 
*Taken from Teaching Right from Wrong 40 Things You Can Do to Raise a Moral Child by Arthur Dorbin
Other Resources: 
Building Moral Intelligence The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing by Michelle Borba, Ed.D.
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