Parents have always been responsible for passing on their values--presumably, good ones--to their children. But lately that task seems more challenging than ever. Outside influences--from the Internet to the teacher in the after-school program--abound. Formal religious observance is down; interfaith families that follow no prescribed religion at all are up. So you can be forgiven for any urgent fretting about your child's seemingly innate talent for hitting, grabbing, and lying.
Happily, experts reassure us that, in a child, misbehavior is normal behavior. And best of all, each transgression presents an opportunity for instruction.
"Small children are like pets," says Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of How Good Do We Have to Be? "They aren't capable of being bad, just terribly inconvenient. Their mistakes shouldn't be seen as bad moral choices, but instinctive stumbling. It is up to the adults to teach children to see their actions in a moral way."
Some of those lessons unfold naturally, but others do not. And they are far too important to leave up to chance. So here is some advice on what you can do to help build a strong moral foundation for your child:
1 Recognize that you are your child's so biggest moral influence. It's your job to decide, first, that you want to pass along a strong moral structure, and second, to define what that moral structure will be.
Whether you've chosen to adhere to a set of religious principles or forge a more individual code, both parents should sit down and hammer out a working definition of the morality the family will live by. What are your priorities, honesty, ecology? Identify them, and then figure out how you can work together to pass those virtues along. "I can't tell you how often I've heard from people that they never really learned values at home," says Rabbi Wayne Dosick, author of Golden Rules: The Ten Ethical Values Parents Need to Teach Their Children. "But it is the parents' job to pass along a clear set of morals by which they expect their children to live their lives."
* 2 Be a role model. Train yourself to see your behavior through your child's eyes. A classic example: The mom who admonishes her 6-year-old son not to lie, then tells the conductor that he's only 5 to save money on a train ticket. Little transgressions like that teach children that the lines between right and wrong, honesty and dishonesty, are movable.
* 3 Believe in your child. "My personal belief is that children are more likely to behave well, and improve when they have misbehaved, if you believe in their essential goodness," says Rabbi Kushner. That's not to say you should ignore the fact that Sammy has just pulled the dog's tail, or dismiss as nonsense the teacher's report that Angelica spent the day smart-mouthing her. Deal with misbehavior, but do it with sensitivity. "The way to handle disappointing behavior," advises Kushner, "is to say to your child, `I know you can do better. I don't believe that was the real you.'"
* 4 Encourage and reward empathy. Watch how toddlers respond when one of their friends is in tears, and you'll see that even little children are capable of empathy. "Empathy really is the foundation for all virtues and positive moral behavior," says Barbara Unell of Leawood, Kansas, the mother of twins and author of 20 Teachable Virtues. "When a child responds to another child who is crying, for example, he is beginning to demonstrate caring about other people, and being in touch with what they are feeling. That leads to being helpful and tolerant and kind." So when a 3-year-old worries about why a baby is crying, reinforce it. Say, "It's nice that you care about why the baby is unhappy." Involve your family in community projects. Encourage kids to give to others.
* 5 Set age-appropriate standards. A 7-year-old who smacks his little brother should suffer some reasonable consequence, since he's old enough to know better, but the 2-year-old who lashes out when his big brother frustrates him needs an explanation--and probably a distraction--more than a punishment. Keep your standards, but make sure that they aren't beyond your child's level of understanding. This holds for helping out, too: Mary March of Bedford, New York, encourages her 1 2-year-old son, Eric, to play piano at a nearby nursing home, while 4-year-old Jeffrey puts pennies into a charity jar.
* 6 Use punishment sparingly. According to Rabbi Kushner, the most common mistake parents make is to come down too hard on a child for a fairly innocent infraction. Major punishment for minor misdeeds makes kids feel hopeless; the result is more likely to be a power struggle between parent and child than a lesson in how life should be lived. Discipline is effective when it is closely tied to the misdeed: A child who takes a toy from another should give it back and apologize, for example, rather than lose TV-watching privileges. Notes Rabbi Kushner, "Children learn from consequences that are a logical result of what they've done. Too often, punishment becomes a way of reasserting our authority."
* 7 Be on alert for "teachable moments." If you want to instill a certain value (say, patience), be on the lookout for everyday ways to illustrate your point. "You can't just declare that Thursday night you're going to have patience lessons," says Unell. "But if you find yourself sitting at a traffic light, you can make an offhand comment like, `Gee, I wish I didn't have to sit here and wait, but I might as well make the best of it,' as you turn on the radio," she suggests. Kiki Cook, a Connecticut mother of three, likes to bring her kids' attention to heartwarming stories in the news. "It's opened up some wonderful discussions, and I think it really reinforces important concepts," she says.
* 8 Be a little overprotective. There's simply nothing to be gained by exposing young children to the seamy side of humanity. While it is important to teach them what they need to know to be safe, shelter them as much as possible from the details of crimes and other tragedies that present a dark and distorted view of human nature. "There's no point to having kids watch ethical scandal after ethical scandal, night after night, on the evening news," says Rabbi Dosick. That's especially true for very young children, who cannot hope to make sense of the scary stories they see on TV; as kids enter elementary school, some exposure is unavoidable. Even then, however, parents should try to put news stories in context (explain the factors that make certain areas high-crime, for example, so kids don't feel as though they are constantly and unavoidably at risk) and try to avoid dishing out a nightly dose of discouragement.
* 9 Cultivate your child's spirituality. Whether or not church is part of your weekly schedule, your child needs to develop an appreciation for the spiritual side of life. "Part of what religion does is help us pass values from generation to generation," says Rabbi Dosick. "But even without organized religion, you can instill in a child a sense of awe and gratitude for that which is greater than all of us." One way to do that, he suggests, is to forge a strong connection with the natural world: Take walks at sunset, hike in the woods, visit a farm and see a calf being born, or just plant a seed in a cup on the windowsill and watch it slowly become a flower.
* 10 Accept imperfections--in your child and yourself. All the rules governing good behavior can seem overwhelming to a child, who may not really understand that you don't expect her to be perfect. One way to reassure her that it's okay to make mistakes is to let her see you make them--and accept them with equanimity. Another is to be sure to apologize when you've done something you shouldn't have. To do so is to show your child that it is fine to be human, which is comforting, since that's the best any of us can do.