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Teaching Kids to Develop Conscience

    My oldest daughter Rachel is one of the sweetest kids in the world. She is always ready to pitch in and she is constantly reaching out to someone when they are hurt. Imagine my horror when we came home from the local super store to find she had stashed the lip-gloss I had denied her into her pocket. Oh how I dreaded this kind of discipline. I knew I had to act swiftly and firmly to help her learn how wrong it is to steal. I began my plunge into hard core parenting by talking about the harm she caused through her action and discussing her options for retribution. Naturally, the thought of walking back into the store to give it back mortified her! Due to her tender age of four and her obvious distress and lack of prison record I would forego the long walk to the manager's office to confess her sins. As I left her room I knew something else had to be done if she was going to really internalize the message of why stealing was so wrong. So I returned and removed her beloved vanity to illustrate the PAIN someone feels when something is taken away from them that they care about. We have never had a repeat offense.

    The crisis of conscience is prevalent in every aspect of our society. Rising youth violence, peer cruelty, stealing, cheating, sexual promiscuity and substance abuse are all activities that are happening not because kids are bad. Its happening because of a lack of conscience; the inability to determine right from wrong.

    It is very reassuring to me to know that conscience is learned. It is not something the Heavens bestow upon us at birth. It is taught every day from parents and caregivers who have standards about what is allowed and what is not, what the limits are for appropriate behavior. Parents are indeed the cornerstones of instilling the kind of morality that makes wrong behavior simply not an option for kids.

    According to Dr. Michele Borba author, of Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing, Jossey Bass, A Wiley Company 2001, MoralIntelligence.com there are three key steps to building conscience in kids. The first is to create the context for moral growth. This is done through being a strong moral example on a daily basis. Kids pick up on the smallest things, including conversations they overhear. The influence parents have in their daily interactions is crucial. It is also important to develop a close, mutually respectful relationship with our kids. They may be small, but right from the beginning they deserve to be treated with respect. Be sure your kids are aware of your moral beliefs. Use daily examples in the world to reflect to your child your beliefs on issues. Set specific boundaries for moral behavior in your home or school. Help your kids understand the reasoning behind morality by asking questions like "why do you think this upset me?" or "how do you think that person felt?" In addition, something most parents twenty years ago never wanted to do, explain your parenting behavior. Kids need to understand the reasoning behind our rules. All of these behaviors help create a context for moral growth for kids.

    The second step to instilling conscience is to teach virtues that strengthen and guide behavior. Ask yourself, "Have I really taken the time to teach my kids what the virtue is and why its important?" Do we, as parents and teachers actually talk to our kids about the virtues we hope they will incorporate into their being? Sadly, we often wait until the child has misbehaved before we discuss in depth the importance of a particular virtue. We need to identify the virtue clearly for the child. Write it on a family calendar or on their notebook for school so you can all focus on developing that quality for three weeks, which is how long research says it takes to learn a new skill. Use your creativity to make this fun. Screensavers, posters, mobiles, and many other clever ideas can all be very helpful in teaching kids to focus on a particular virtue.

    The third step is to use moral discipline to help your child learn right from wrong. Our reactions to a child's misbehavior, according to Dr. Borba, can be productive or destructive in teaching them to know right from wrong. It is critical to respond calmly to what the child has done. Then, review WHY the behavior is wrong. Reflect on the consequences of the behavior by making reparation with age appropriate and relevant consequences to help the child understand their responsibility in the matter.

    Conscience, along with empathy and self-control are the three core elements to building strong character in kids. There are many other virtues critical to developing moral behavior. However, these three are absolutely essential. Fortunately, they can easily be taught through modeling moral behavior and paying special attention to the traits we want to develop in our kids. This can be done regularly through conversation and creative projects that will be fun and effective in helping our kids become moral adults with the depth of character we all hope for in our children.

    � Anne Leedom

    Anne Leedom is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of parentingbookmark.com. She has been quoted in national print including Parents, Redbook and Nick Jr. Magazines and has been a guest on National Public Radio Affiliate WHWC on the show "Mental Health Today with Dr. Minette Ponick." Anne writes a regular column in Northern California and can be reached at anne@parentingbookmark.com