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Ways to Help Children Distinguish Between Right and Wrong

May 1, 2008
A common situation that many parents face is dealing with their children's behaviors. For example, let's say you had a five year old child that has just entered school. She was a polite, considerate, and helpful young lady at home and in front of her teachers. However, her behavior has recently changed at home and it involves talking back, swearing, and discussing sex in general terms. She learned these behaviors from other kids at school.

I am not sure how I should teach her to make the right choices about right vs. wrong. She has already skipped school at the urging of her 5 year old friend. How can I help her when she is out of my supervision at school? How do I instruct to make the right decision on her own?

That is a great question. First we should discuss the fundamentals regarding this issue.

Kids in general try hard to do well in life. Their behaviors reflect what they think will bring them a successful result. The problem is that their idea of a successful result might not be the best idea. Sometimes they want the basics like hunger, warmth, and food. Or they might strive to have their parent's approval and love. Or they might be out to just have a good time.

They will exhibit the behavior they believe will get them the need they have at that time.

They will discover that their behaviors don't always end in success. They learn from this and try other behaviors until they find the ones that yield the intended result. When deciding what behavior to have we rely on experience, direction for our parents, and our skills and abilities. We create a group of behaviors that we hope will serve our needs effectively.

After trial and error we will find the behaviors that meet our needs. We will use these behaviors to get what we want. The more we are successful with a certain behavior, the more we engage in that behavior.

Returning to your 5 year old daughter. This behavior is a sign that she is in the process of experimenting. She is in a new situation at school and this has expanded her world. She is not sure how to react and is excited and nervous at the same time. She is testing different behaviors to determine which behaviors will end in an intended result.

Your daughter will probably try a host of behaviors. Many of which will not occur ever again as they didn't work. Some behaviors will become a part of her usual behavior. Which behaviors will your daughter keep? It is contingent upon the results of each experience. She is at an age where having your approval and love is very critical to her. She needs to see your reaction to her behaviors. Outside reactions from others also play a role. For example, punishments and rewards can be a big influence on her behavior. She will seek the approval of you, her teachers, and her friends.

You have a great deal of influence as her parent. When she is this young she will listen to you. Later on is another story. Your influence appears in two ways.

1. How you respond emotionally to her behaviors. Do you approve or disapprove 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...)

Another item to consider is the intensity of reaction you demonstrate to bad behavior. Take swearing for example. If you become exasperated every time she swears, she may view swearing as an adventure because she wants to see you get red with anger.

If it looks like becoming more serious or more entrenched, then you need to take some sort of action.

When this happens you will need to rely on your opinion of the situation. Are you doing all the things you can as a parent? Make sure that you are a positive role model. Remember, you have a significant influence on her.

Check out the school and your neighborhood. How have the children who were raised in this neighborhood do when they grew up? Do they become productive adults or do most of the kids spend their days being in trouble for most of their teenage years?

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.

Sadly, you can't watch over every outside influence in your child's life. You also can't be totally sure that your daughter will learn right from wrong. However, you can improve the chances of her success. Your influence is great and you should be a healthy role model for your daughter.
About the Author
To get more articles full of parenting advice by author Dr. Noel Swanson, go to his parenting advice website.
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