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5 Ways To Teach Your Child To Do What's Right

"I just don't believe that kids learn to do what's right by us giving them hugs. The only reason I ever did my homework was the strap waiting if I brought home a bad report card." -- Jack

It's true. Kids need our hugs, but that's not what teaches them to do right. How do kids learn?

Our modeling. When we take responsibility, when we apologize, when we regulate our own emotions so we aren't yelling at them, children learn to take responsibility, to apologize, to regulate their own emotions and treat others with respect.

Our guidance. When we talk with them about the choices in their lives, kids learn. Should he lie about his age to get a cheaper admission price at the amusement park?  Can she break a date with a friend when she gets a more exciting offer? Should he help pay to replace his sister's toy that he broke?  Talk about the fact that ethical choices are worth making, even when it costs you...And what ethical choice doesn't cost you?

Our family habits.  When kids get used to "repair" rather than punishment, they automatically look to make things better after a fight with their sibling. When they learn that everyone has big feelings, but emotions aren't an emergency, they learn to take responsibility for their emotions and their behavior.

Kids really do learn what they live. We teach them what's right every day, by the example we set and the family culture we create. 

But these examples are literally learning to do right. I suspect that Jack is actually talking about choosing to do right.  What can parents do, every day, to help kids CHOOSE to do right?

1. Stay connected. When kids don't follow our lead and our rules, it's often because they feel disconnected. Turn off your phone, forget about your list, and spend fifteen minutes just being fully present and loving with your child. Repeat daily. I predict that within a few days, your child will be "choosing" to cooperate much more.

2. Set limits with empathy, which means you hold to your (reasonable) expectations, while offering understanding that your child doesn't like the limit. The limits teach kids what's right. The empathy makes the limits palatable so your child is more likely to accept them.

3. Give support. If your child isn't meeting your expectations, what support does she need?  For instance, you want her to take her plate to the kitchen. You know it takes thirty days to create a new habit. So every single meal you connect warmly with her as you encourage, remind, and motivate her to take her plate to the kitchen. (Notice that the connection has to be positive so the child wants to create the habit?) Over time, you gradually help your child create good habits that she "owns,"  for life.

4. Teach your child to "repair" relationships when he's done damage. Help him with his upset and anger first, then he'll be open to repair. This is never punishment; it's an empowering opportunity for him to make things better. Like cleaning up any other mess, it makes us more careful about making the mess to begin with.

5. Help with emotions When kids know what's right but won't do it, that's a red flag that they're in the grip of big emotions. The only way to "get rid" of emotions is to feel them, but the good news is that once you empathize with your child's upset and offer understanding, he'll "show" you those emotions and they'll begin to evaporate. He learns that emotions aren't an emergency, which helps him regulate them, so he can regulate his behavior--and make better choices.

More work? Yes. But that's how kids develop self-discipline. They choose, over and over, to do the harder thing, because on some level there's a bigger pay-off. Because we as the parent have helped them to experience how good it feels to choose to "do right."

Punishment, by contrast, only works when kids are small and can be forced. And because they were forced instead of choosing, punishment doesn't actually build the self-discipline muscles that would enable the child to choose to do what's right--instead of what's easy.

Of course, kids still need those hugs. A hug is the shortest distance between two people. Without that close relationship with you, why would your child even WANT to do right?

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