How to Teach Children Right From Wrong

By: Dr. Noel Swanson

A typical issue that parents face is dealing with their children's behaviors. Let's say you are a parent of a five year old child that has just started school. She was a polite, considerate, and helpful young lady at home and in front of her teachers. However, her behavior has become inappropriate at home as it includes talking back, swearing, and discussing sex in general terms. She learned these behaviors from other children at her school.

You might not sure how I should teach her to make the right choices about right vs. wrong. She has already missed school at the insistence of her 5 year old friend. HOw can you help her when she is not under your watchful eye at school? How do I ensure she will make the right choice on her own?

That is a good question. Let's talk about the fundamentals behind this issue.

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

They will demonstrate 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 experimenting we will find the behaviors that meet our needs. We will use these behaviors to get what we want. The more we achieve a good result with a behavior, the more we demonstrate that behavior.

Back to your 5 year old daughter. Her behavior signals that she is in the process of trial and error. 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 yield a successful 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.

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. How you respond emotionally to her behaviors. Do you approve or disapprove of her behaviors?

2. How you control her external environment. You have the power to choose her school, neighbors, and people she will be in contact with. You are the one who can give her punishments and rewards.

Integrating what he discussed together and looking at this logically, you need to answer the following questions:

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...)

One thing to consideration 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 bent out of shape.

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

At this point you will need to rely on your judgement 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.

Next, check out the school and your neighborhood. How have the children who grew up in this neighborhood fared when they grew up? Do they become productive adults or do most of the kids spend time in juvenile detention 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.

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If you could do with some tips about your children's behaviors, take a look at Dr. Noel Swanson's excellent website, And get his free parenting newsletter - it's packed with free advice:
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