Teaching Your Kids Right from Wrong – Ages and Stages.

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Posted by: Sue Atkins

Ages & Stages of Teaching Right & Wrong

I was invited on to BBC Radio Kent today discussing Rod Stewart trolling his daughters with dog poo if they don’t clean up after their pups. It was a discussion about teaching children right from wrong.

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist known for his pioneering work in child development. He concluded that for the first four years of life, children were in a pre-moral stage. In this stage they learn about right and wrong through experiencing the responses of adults to their actions.

A child’s moral development begins at birth because early, caring experiences create trust, laying the foundation for positive relationships in the future. The first 5 years of a child’s life builds the foundations for ethical & moral behaviour. As a child develops & matures they begin to understand right and wrong. So, you and other caregivers are crucial & vital to this process.

Teaching children right from wrong is an on going process based on their developing maturity and understanding.

Here are some ideas about how you can help your child develop moral “intelligence” from birth.

Ages 0-1:

Babies learn right from wrong through experience. When a infant is hungry, wet, or lonely, it feels uncomfortable, scared and ill at ease. When adults offer care and nurturing, a baby feels relaxed & safe. By responding quickly to a baby’s basic needs, including changing, feeding, holding, singing, reading, and speaking & interacting, parents and caregivers help babies bond and feel safe. Early, secure attachment influences moral and other learning: By the end of the first year, most babies learn to imitate, initiate contact, and communicate feelings and preferences, and are beginning to develop some understanding of what is okay to do & and what isn’t.

Ages 1-3:

Toddlers begin to understand the idea of rules, and can start to respond appropriately if they are told not to do something. Despite being egocentric, they begin to realise that others have feelings and needs, but it can be difficult for toddlers to resist acting impulsively & to control their own behaviour without support. For example, when an 18-month-old wants a toy, they as likely to snatch it from another child. At this stage, children don’t t yet have the ability to truly distinguish between right and wrong on their own. Instead, they rely on you to define morality for them, and to help them learn what is “right” or acceptable behaviour. This is the time to ‘Talk & Teach’ your toddler through kind but firm, fair and consistent messages. By consistently offering guidance and correction, you are teaching your toddler about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and that consequences follow their actions.

Ages 4-5:

Rather than just being directed by adults, preschoolers begin to develop their own ideas of right and wrong based on what they learn in your family. With increasing sociability and a growing understanding of the feelings and rights of other people, “moral intelligence” develops as well. While they still need lots of guidance and reminding, children now begin to develop a strong sense of justice and awareness of acceptable behaviour. By using your child’s everyday experiences and talking & teaching your child to express their feelings they develop empathy and compassion, and in this simple way you are nurturing their moral code. Through being patient, tolerant, consistent and kind you are offering your child positive guidance by setting clear boundaries, expectations, and consequences for moral behaviour that will last their whole life.

Ages 7-10

Around this age of development children begin to question whether you, their teachers or key people of influence, are infallible.

They show respect for those adults who are fair and know how to be in charge. They respect authority & don’t feel threatened by it as authority offers them security & they can see how it impacts on society within their social experiences. Most children at this stage believe that they should obey their parents. And, school-age children believe that if they break a rule they should be corrected. This strong sense of “should do” and “should not do” sets some children up to tell tales on others.

Children of this age have a strong sense of fairness & they understand the necessity of rules and they enjoy participating in making the rules. So, sit down with your kids and chat about your ‘family rules’ and how they can contribute to them positively. Between 7-10 children begin to believe that it’s acceptable and necessary for them to have opinions too, and they begin to sort out which values benefit them most – a sort of “what’s in it for me” stage.

You can use this sense of fairness and drive for equality to their advantage: “Yes, I’ll drive you to your friend’s house to play if you agree to tidy up your bedroom ” These negotiations make sense to this age child. This also begins the stage where children are able to internalise religious values, which concepts truly have meaning for them, and which don’t.

Ages: Preteens & Teens

Mark Twain is famous for saying: ‘When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.’

At this stage of development children strive to be popular. They are vulnerable to peer pressure and peer values. As they continue to sort out which values will become part of themselves and which they will abandon they may waver and try on different value systems to see which ones fit. Your child is more capable of abstract reasoning about moral values and becomes interested in what’s good for society. Children may view parents more as consultants than as powerful authority figures. They will begin to test you and your value system.

This can be a challenging time – but I think it helps if you see this as a huge time of growth as your teen struggles to transition into a mature, respectable member of society. They may appear to go against everything you stand for, but give them time, as they will come back to the solid, moral values of kindness, tolerance and knowing right from wrong that you instilled in them throughout their childhood.

From infancy to adulthood the developing moral person progresses from self (“It’s right because it feels right to me”) to others (“It’s right because it’s what we do in our family”) to abstract moral reasoning (“It’s right because it is right”).

If you would like to find out more about my ‘Navigating The Choppy Waters of The Teenage Years you can access my eCourse here.

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