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How do children learn right from wrong?

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This post was originally published by Parenting Translator. Sign up for the newsletter and follow Parenting Translator on Instagram.

As parents, our short-term goal is to get our children to listen to us and follow the rules and limits we set for our family. Yet, our long-term goal is to raise children who truly understand why we have created these rules and limits and develop an internal motivation to be kind and do the “right” thing. In other words, we want them to follow rules because they care about being a kind, moral person, not just because they are scared they might get in trouble. In research, this is referred to as internalization. So how do we make sure we are working towards this long-term goal? Could our short-term discipline strategies be interfering with this long-term goal? 

A recent study addressed this question. The researchers found that when parents used specific discipline strategies they were more likely to have children who showed early signs of internalization of the rules than parents who used different strategies. 

What strategies helped children to internalize the rules? 

  1. Logical consequences instead of  punishments. Logical consequences are consequences that are related to the child’s actions, such as taking away a toy that your child threw at their sibling, ending meal time because they are playing with their food, making your child clean up a mess that they made or leaving the playground when they aren’t following the rules. These types of consequences are more likely to result in children actually taking responsibility for the problem they created and helping children to understand the importance of the broken rule.
  2. Practicing “autonomy-supportive” parenting instead of “controlling” parenting. “Autonomy-supportive” parenting includes acknowledging your child’s feelings about a rule or limit, giving them some sort of choice or involvement in the decision-making around rules and limits, and providing the rationale behind the rule or limit. Controlling parenting often involves threats and punishment to make your child behave or trying to induce guilt or fear. Autonomy-supportive parenting helps children to internalize the rules, while controlling parenting makes children more likely to behave to please parents or avoid getting into trouble. 

How does internalization happen? 

This study, along with previous research, finds that, when children feel less anger and more empathy in response to their parents’ rule-setting, they are more likely to find the rule or limit acceptable. Research suggests that the more children accept the rule or limit, the more likely they are to appreciate and internalize the values that underlie the rule or limit. Research also suggests that anger in response to a parent’s discipline strategy may interfere with internalization since it makes children think more about how unfair the discipline is rather than the values their parents are trying to teach. Research finds that any parent discipline strategy that increases empathy is likely to enhance the internalization process. Logical consequences and autonomy-supportive parenting are effective because they help to reduce anger and increase empathy in the context of rule- or limit-setting. 

So how do parents apply this research?

  1. Gently remind your child of a rule or limit before using any type of discipline. For example, if your child is throwing sand at the playground, remind them “We will have to leave the playground if you keep throwing sand” before following through on this logical consequence. 
  2. Acknowledge their feelings if they are not happy about the limit you are setting. It is so important to remember that you can hold the limit while still acknowledging they might not like it. For example, “I know you don’t like being buckled into your car seat. It feels uncomfortable for you, but it is the only safe way for us to ride in the car.”
  3. Use logical consequences instead of punishments when possible. Logical consequences are consequences created by parents that are related to the behavior and make logical sense following from the behavior. For example, if your child hits their brother, you ask them to stop playing to go get him an ice pack. If they make a mess, they have to clean it up instead of watching a movie with the rest of the family. A punishment is a negative consequence that is usually unrelated to the behavior and intended to be aversive to the child so they do not repeat the challenging behavior. For example, taking away screen time when they hit their brother or yelling at a child for making a mess. Research finds that logical consequences are more acceptable to children, which makes them less likely to cause anger and more likely to increase empathy. 
  4. Give them a chance to make some type of choice or participate in decision making or problem solving in some way. If your child is having difficulty with a limit or rule you set, give them a chance to make a choice. For example, you can say something like: “We need to leave the playground now, you can either walk or skip to the car.”
  5. Explain the rationale behind the limit, focusing on the impact on others when possible. Explaining the rationale (translation: giving them the reason for the rule rather than just saying “because I said so”) helps to reduce children’s anger about the rule, which then increases their likelihood of internalizing the rule. In addition, focusing on how the rule impacts others can help to build empathy, which is also key for internalization. For example, you can say something like: “We have to clean up our toys otherwise someone could trip over them and get hurt” or “When you grabbed that toy from your brother’s hands, it hurt his hands and interrupted his play”. 
  6. Avoid threats (“If you don’t clean up your toys, I am going to throw them away”) or anything that is meant to induce fear or guilt (“Why are you always so mean to your baby brother?”). These approaches might be effective in the moment but can come off as controlling to children and increase anger, which ultimately reduces the chances of internalization. 

Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, a mother of three and the founder of Parenting Translator, a nonprofit newsletter that turns scientific research into information that is accurate, relevant and useful for parents.



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