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Teaching Your Child Right From Wrong

A few years ago, my husband went to pick up our eldest child from a playdate at a neighbor's house. At 4, absentminded Sam had already lost a number of other kids' toys, so when he asked his dad if he could bring home an action figure, Haywood reminded him of our new no-borrowing rule. As he and Sam were leaving, though, Haywood heard the other child whisper, "Quick, put it in your pocket  -- your dad's not looking!" Sam did.

On the way home, Haywood casually asked about the playdate, but Sam was quiet, both fists jammed in his coat pockets, his shoulders hunched in misery. By the time they'd walked the two blocks to our house, Sam had started to cry. At the back door, he finally held up the contraband Power Ranger, openly weeping. "I'm sorry, Daddy," he choked. "I did the wrong thing."

This tearful confession presented a complicated dilemma for Haywood: Should Sam be punished for breaking a rule? Or praised for coming clean? Neither, say experts.

Discipline strategies like time-outs don't address the deeper questions of right and wrong that lie beneath our expectations for truthfulness and cooperation. But praising a child who knows he's done wrong and feels terrible about it sends a mixed message. A better route: Recognize the situation as a chance to have the kind of conversation that helps kids develop a conscience  -- and the strength to do the right thing on their own. (It turns out that Haywood did the right thing himself when he sat down on the back steps with Sam and said, "I'm glad you told me the truth, buddy, but what do you think you can do next time so this doesn't happen again?")

Preschool is the ideal time to start having these talks. While it's never too early to begin teaching concepts like honesty and respect, when toddlers are "good" it's because they prefer rewards to punishment, not because they can grasp why a behavior is wrong. When kids start testing rules and boundaries, and can understand why a certain misdeed is unacceptable, teachable moments abound. Some typical preschool transgressions, and how to make the best of them:

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