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Everyday Ways to Teach Values

If you've been trying to teach your child to be kind, honest, and polite, it can be frustrating--and heart-wrenching--when he disappoints you. He swipes some coins from your dresser and swears he didn't. He teases a boy at the bus stop. He throws books when he gets angry. In fact, according to a recent study by Public Agenda, only 34 percent of parents say they feel they've been successful in teaching their kids self-control and self-discipline.

"There's no need to panic," says Parents adviser Michele Borba, Ed.D. "A child's moral growth is an ongoing process, and all kids slip up from time to time. You still have a tremendous influence on your child's behavior."

Common problems for kids:

  • He doesn't always realize how others are feeling. (He sees a party guest sitting alone but may not guess that she's feeling left out.)
  • She doesn't tune in to body language, facial expression, or tone of voice. (Your glare and exasperated sigh have no effect until you say you're angry.)

How to help:

  • Teach her to identify her feelings and those of others ("You seem worried about your recital").
  • Teach him to interpret emotional cues ("Billy didn't look at you when you told him about your coin collection--maybe he isn't interested in coins").

Activities to try:

  • With kids under 6, write down feeling words or paste pictures of people expressing different feelings on index cards. Draw cards and act out the emotion for each other to guess.
  • Watch other people and guess how they're feeling based on their body language. ? Ask your child to imagine the result of a kind act ("How do you think Grandma would feel if she found a get-well card from you in her mailbox?").

Common problems for kids:

  • She doesn't understand how her misbehavior affects others.
  • He may cheat to win a game.
  • She has a hard time admitting mistakes or accepting blame.

How to help:

  • Point out the impact of her behavior on others ("Because you didn't admit you broke Sarah's tape recorder, her mother thought she did it and punished her").
  • Require reparations ("You can't take back what you did, but what can you do now to help Sarah?").
  • Praise your child when he admits a mistake or apologizes.

Activities to try:

  • Role-play so your child can imagine himself in the victim's place ("Pretend you're the bus driver and you have to clean up the bus after school. How do you feel when you find gum on the seats?").
  • Ask him what types of things people with a conscience do, such as keep a promise or give back extra change.
  • Discuss moral issues that arise as you read or watch TV together.

Common problems for kids:

  • She talks back to adults.
  • He teases or bullies peers.
  • She takes things without asking.
  • He has trouble taking turns.

How to help:

  • Teach good manners so he knows specifically how to be a proper host, introduce himself, answer the phone, and be a good teammate.
  • Target a specific rude behavior (rolling her eyes, telling you to "chill out"), and point it out every time. Don't continue talking until it stops.
  • Help him find words to tell you he's frustrated ("It really bothers me when you don't let me finish my game").
  • Teach her how to disagree respectfully ("I guess we just don't see things the same way").

Activities to try:

  • Create a secret signal to let her know when she's being disrespectful.
  • Create a family Bill of Rights, including ways to treat people.
  • Ask for examples of how he can show respect to an elderly person, a younger person, or a guest.

Common problems for kids:

  • Your child makes fun of people who are different.
  • He makes discriminatory remarks.

How to help:

  • He may repeat words or jokes without understanding that they are hurtful. Explain why discriminatory comments are wrong, and refuse to allow them.
  • Provide opportunities for him to meet people of different ages, races, cultures, and religions.
  • Expose her to literature, toys, music, and games that represent a wide range of cultural groups.
  • Answer questions about differences simply and honestly ("Miguel talks differently than we do because he speaks Spanish and is just learning English").

Activities to try:

  • Look at pictures of people of different races; point out the few differences and the many similarities.
  • Ask her what kinds of things an intolerant person would say and how that might make others feel.
  • Ask him to be on the lookout for generalized negative statements about groups of people that start with "They're all," "They never," or "They always."

Common problems for kids:

  • She tends to blame others.
  • He's a poor sport.
  • She has trouble sharing.
  • He won't compromise.
  • She changes the rules so she can win.

How to help:

  • Be fair at home by not playing favorites and listening respectfully to both sides of a dispute.
  • Spell out family rules ("In this family, we take turns and solve our problems by talking").
  • Teach her how to share ("When Jana comes over, you'll need to share. If there's something you don't want her to play with, you should put it away before she comes").
  • Teach him fairness procedures ("I chose the game, so can you go first" or "Let's agree on the rules before we start playing").

Activities to try:

  • Ask your child if he has ever been treated unfairly and how it made him feel.
  • Provide opportunities for him to meet people of different ages, races, cultures, and religions.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the March 2003 issue of Parents magazine.