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Clarifying Rules, Values

“Why do policemen speed when they are giving someone a ticket?” one four-year-old asked his mother. Questions like these provide wonderful opportunities to listen to children’s thinking about right and wrong. Studies reveal that the understanding of moral issues occurs in stages. Young children are interested in rules and laws and think everyone (though they allow exceptions for themselves) should follow them. Preschoolers often get upset when they see another child doing something they interpret as wrong, and altercations can occur when they try to stop them.

Research also shows that talking about rules and the reasons why we follow them enhances children’s moral development. The idea isn’t to nudge them into a new stage of abstract thinking but to help them grow into making thoughtful decisions.

In the past parents tended to “lay down the law” rather than communicate the benefits of behaving in particular ways. Ultimatums like “I better not catch you lying” weren’t designed to convey the satisfactions of being honest. However, explaining that you returned money to the cashier because she gave you too much change shows what honesty means to you in concrete terms. In previous generations, people lectured and punished their children for not following rigid rules of “right” and “wrong.” Although realistic consequences are important, our society has become too complex to insist children think according to particular guidelines as they get older simply because we say they should.

Families function better when they have agreed-on rules. Sometimes rules change a little from season to season, and now is the time to discuss expectations for summer. Talking about rules in family meetings allows children to express their developing ideas about right and wrong. Asking questions like “Why do respect other people’s belongings in our family?” helps flex their moral thinking. Children also learn about following rules when they play games with family members. The ability to agree on guidelines for games and to play fairly makes children more valued as playmates.

Family social situations also provide opportunities to establish values. If a child agrees to go to a friend’s birthday party, is it okay to cancel if she gets a better offer that day? Asking questions like “How would you feel if it were the day of your party and someone decided not to come?” or “Does our family believe in keeping promises?” provides a basis for considering different perspectives.

Stretching our own understanding of rules and values is important. Our children will become adults in a world that requires expanded ways of thinking. We can start by complimenting children on asking questions like the one about obeying the speed laws. Examining life from different perspectives builds understanding. Talking about situations that hurt others’ feelings or “didn’t feel quite right” develops conscience and an internal voice that allows children to navigate the world. All the times we stop and actually discuss a child’s sense of what’s right offers them practice in expressing their values and communicating productively with others in the future.

Talking about rules in family meetings allows children to express their developing ideas about right and wrong. Asking questions like “Why don’t we call people names in our family?” helps flex their moral thinking. Children also learn about following rules when they play games with family members. The ability to agree on guidelines for games and to play fairly makes children more valued as playmates.

Family social situations also provide opportunities to establish values. If a child agrees to go to a friend’s birthday party, is it okay to cancel if she gets a better offer that day? Asking questions like “How would you feel if it were the day of your party and someone decided not to come?” or “Does our family believe in keeping promises?” provides a basis for considering different perspectives.

Stretching our own understanding of rules and values is important. Our children will become adults in a world that requires expanded ways of thinking. We can start by complimenting children on asking questions like the one about obeying the speed laws. Examining life from different perspectives builds understanding. Talking about situations that hurt others’ feelings or “didn’t feel quite right” develops conscience and an internal voice that allows children to navigate the world. All the times we stop and actually discuss a child’s sense of what’s right offers them practice in expressing their values and communicating productively with others in the future.

Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.

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