Demystifying the Preschool Years
a book by Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum, published by Alfred A. Knopf


By Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum

Some children are ready for ethical guidance sooner than others, but a child will never be ready unless you help him/her. There are some simple steps you can take to begin guiding your child.

- Establish a Code of Ethics
As a parent, it's up to you to establish your family's basic code of ethics. These can be as simple as: We don't hurt each other, we take care of each other, we treat one another with respect, we use kind words, we help others, and we're fair.

-Acknowledge Your Child's Kind Acts
When your child spontaneously does the right thing, you need to acknowledge this good behavior. When you notice and respond positively to kind or good actions, you actively reinforce these behaviors. Your child doesn't need a reward for her good acts. When she learns that it feels good to do something good, she takes the first step in her moral development.

- Hold Your Child Accountable
By holding your child accountable when she does something wrong, you're helping to teach her the difference between right and wrong. Just as you should compliment a child for doing something good, your child needs to feel badly if she's done something wrong. In this way, she owns all of her behavior and learns to make the right choices in the future.

- Catch Your Child in the Moment
When you see an opportunity to teach good behavior, you should "catch" your child in the moment. Don't wait until later.

- Help Your Child to Repair the Hurt
When your child makes a bad choice, she needs to have the opportunity to repair the hurt or wrongdoing. For a very young child, the words "I'm sorry" are not always meaningful. Acts of kindness such as giving a hug, making a drawing, or helping to rebuild the block structure that she knocked down can be much more meaningful.

- Motivate Through Love
When a child behaves badly, your reaction needs to be calm and considered. The best way to motivate your child to be good is through love, not fear. You need to disapprove of her behavior while still reassuring your child that you love her.

- Be a Good Role Model
As much as what you say, your actions form the basis for your child's values. When your child sees you call a sick friend, take care of an aging parent, or offer help to someone in need, she'll learn from your example. On the other hand, if you don't always model moral behavior, or you send conflicting messages about moral issues, you may confuse or even upset your child.

- Teach Your Child the Value of Her Possessions
Keep fewer toys on the shelves.
Don't immediately replace a toy when it breaks.
If your child wants a new toy, tell her she can wait for a special occasion (a birthday or a holiday).
Tell people that it's okay not to get your child a gift.

website: Judith Motzkin
Author photos: Elena Seibert