We all gasp in horror when we hear about the teenager on the news who killed their mom/dad/stepparent/sibling/etc. over being told no. Or for some other equally ridiculous reason. Too often it’s a story about an otherwise “good” kid from a “good” family. This leaves people questioning why the tragedy struck that family. People believe that just because the parent is a moral, compassionate person then their children will be as well. Wrong. This assumption is so wrong. Developing a strong conscience starts from a very young age. It is often apparent in children about elementary school age. Children cannot just develop this all on their own. I believe setting a good example plays a part. I also believe actively assisting your child in developing a conscience plays a bigger part.
Understanding how children/teens are.
Children are impulsive. They see something they want and they take it. If something pops into their head, chances are it is going to come out of their little mouths at the most inopportune moment. People are not born aware of the rules of society. Rules have to be taught. More than that, individuals have to respect the rules for them to follow them throughout life. Children want to please so they will often do as they are told regardless. As they get older, they need to have a conscience to keep making those moral choices.
Focus on helping to develop a child with a conscience.
Being the headstrong child that I was, getting me to follow rules for the sake of being rules was not going to cut it. One thing I am very grateful for is that my family made sure I developed a conscience. They allowed me to tap into it instead of just forcing me to act sorry. I didn’t just do the right thing because they were around. Of course like everyone, I had instances of being forced into feeling bad. Such as the time I stole gum from a store by grabbing it without my grandma realizing, and her taking me back to pay for it and apologize.
Everyone has a few of those learning experiences. They come from the people around you wanting to set a good example. But the thing I remember most vividly, was that I was not forced into apologizing. I truly believe this helped me more than anything.
Letting the child learn to develop a conscience.
Of course when I was too little to understand, I was told to apologize. But as I got older I was allowed to reflect on what I did instead. I was allowed to make the determination if I was sorry or not. If I was, then I would apologize. If I wasn’t, then I was never forced to pretend to be.
Often times I would immediately feel sorry and express that. Sometimes it took me a few minutes to understand what I did was wrong. On the rare occasion, I would decide I was not sorry and whatever I said or did was warranted. Those times were generally when I said something or did something in defense of someone I thought was being wronged. A person who would not, or could not, stand up for themselves. I would explain my position on the situation to my mother, and she never made me say I was sorry. This greatly assisted me in understanding what is right, what is wrong, and what is in a gray area where I would really have to dig deep to decide what to do.
Though this is not conventional, I will absolutely utilize this with my own child(ren). I want to know that when I am not around to correct them that they are capable of being strong and moral on their own. I want them to have that little voice in their head that tells them “I am wrong” when they go too far.
Why it is important to not just punish.
It is paramount for children to be able to make their own choice on how to react to the things happening in their lives. It is then our job as parents, and other important individuals in their lives, to help them understand the importance of those reactions on how their lives will go. For instance, if I see a child take something from another I would not go and tell him/her to apologize. I would instead ask how they believe the other child feels because of their action, or how they would feel if it was them instead (perhaps even take the toy so they know how it feels). Then encourage them to do what they think would make the situation better. This assists in developing that conscience.
Toddler age children they may need to be given options. Such as “should you apologize or should you continue to play with the toy even though you hurt your friends feelings?” Be prepared that the child may make the wrong choice a few times before they get it. There will then need to be adverse consequences to reinforce until the point is made, but it should still be their choice in the end.
Make sure you are helping the children in your life learn right from wrong so they have the tools to make better choices later in life. Share with your friends and family as well!