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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:

Telling a Whopper

Tim Guerrero, 4, and his 3-year-old sister, Emma, were playing nicely until Emma asked to borrow Tim's toy. When he refused, Emma snatched it out of his hand. Outraged, Tim slapped her in the face. When their mom, Millie, came in to ask what the fuss was about, Emma screamed, "Tim hit me!" The boy emphatically denied the accusation: "No, I didn't! I did not hit Emma!" But Guerrero, of Bayville, New Jersey, could plainly see a flaming-red, Tim-size handprint on her daughter's cheek.

Reality check: A bald-faced lie about a misdeed may add insult to injury, but there's no need for parents to go ballistic. The same lack of impulse control that leads a child to break a rule can also lead him, in the heat of the moment, to try to cover his tracks.

What to say: Avoid directly questioning a child's truthfulness ("Can you look me right in the eye and tell me you didn't do this?"); you'll likely cause him to dig himself an even deeper hole, says Michael Riera, Ph.D., coauthor of Right From Wrong: Instilling a Sense of Integrity in Your Child. Guerrero might have done well to say something like "I can see that you and Emma are both very upset. Is there anything you want to tell me?" If Tim had stuck to his story, she could have tried pushing a bit: "Are you sure? You look a little uncomfortable when you say that you didn't hit Emma. I know people make mistakes sometimes, especially when they're mad about something, but it's still important to tell the truth, even when you make a mistake."

What to do: Once she made sure that no one was seriously hurt, Guerrero could have sat down with Tim and asked him why he hit his sister and what he could have done instead, offering suggestions if he was having trouble. If Tim was truly sorry, then Guerrero might have helped him brainstorm ways to make Emma feel better (offering her a damp cloth to hold against her cheek, for instance). Then she could have reminded them both (no reason not to let Emma in on the lesson) why they need to be honest.


Saying Hurtful Things

Jacob and Henry Ives's Morrison, Colorado, living room was the epitome of calm as the two brothers sat side by side, building wooden-block towers. Then disaster struck: Just when 6-year-old Jacob's tower was getting really tall, Henry, 4, bumped into it and the elaborate skyscraper tumbled to the floor. Jacob started to cry. Henry was devastated. "I'm sorry, Jacob," he said over and over. "I'm sorry I knocked down your tower!" But Jacob was furious. "I'll never forgive you!" he blurted. Henry ran sobbing to their mom, Christine.

Reality check: Little kids have strong feelings and a weak vocabulary  -- their ability to express complicated emotions like frustration and anger is limited, so they often resort to name-calling or unkind words.

What to say: Ives could have helped Jacob develop a "feelings vocabulary" by naming the emotion that motivated him: "When you're angry, it's okay to say, 'I'm mad at you' or 'I'm really upset that you knocked down my building,' but it's not okay to say mean things. That kind of language makes Henry feel sad. Wouldn't it hurt your feelings if you made a mistake and you were sorry, but I told you I wouldn't accept your apology anyway?"

What to do: In this case, a breather from each other might have been effective  -- in large part to give Jacob a chance to cool down so that he could really hear what his mom was saying. But it's not a good idea to force kids to make an insincere apology; that only fuels their anger. "Instead of creating a battle of wills to get the big 'I'm sorry,' it's more meaningful to show empathy toward the child who was hurt," says Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., director of family support services at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale. Ives might have said to Henry, "I'm so sorry Jacob hurt your feelings. I know you must be feeling really sad about that."


Breaking a Rule

My three boys are allowed to play pretty much anywhere they like in our house, except for the living room. Nevertheless, one day Joe, 4, and Henry, 6, wound up in there, joyfully ambushing each other from behind the curtains. Joe slipped and crashed into a table holding family photos and other memorabilia. He wasn't hurt, but several items smashed onto the hardwood floor, including a small ceramic sculpture made from a model of Henry's hand. Joe took one look at those pieces of clay scattered all over the floor, understood immediately that he'd ruined something irreplaceable, and burst into tears. Henry, brokenhearted over the destruction of his sculpture, also started to sob.

Reality check: Although Henry and Joe didn't mean to break a cherished memento, they were certainly breaking a family rule by horsing around in the living room. So I acted on my first impulse, which was to say, "No TV for either of you for a week!" But it would have been more effective if I had used this incident as a chance for my kids to think about the real reason behind our rule.

What to say: To Henry: "You must be sad that your sculpture is broken." To Joe: "I can see that you feel bad about ruining Henry's artwork." To both: "Why do you think you aren't allowed to play in the living room?" They ought to conclude (perhaps with my help), "Because there are things in here that might get hurt if we play near them."

What to do: In this case, Henry and Joe already felt horrible, so following through on my no-TV threat would have been pointless. I realized that what they both needed was a chance to put things right  -- neatly setting the fallen items back on the table, helping me glue the fingers back on the ceramic hand, and so on. This would do more to help them develop a conscience—and reinforce the value of this particular rule  -- than a time-out or the loss of a privilege. After all, the real goal of discipline isn't to punish. It's to help kids really want to do the right thing.


Contributing editor Margaret Renkl wrote "Stop Those Germs!" in the November issue.