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How To Talk About Values to Your Kids

All parents want their children to learn right from wrong, but values won't develop on their own. They need to be taught. When we catch our kids lying or being disrespectful, it's an opportunity to help them make a better choice. Simply saying 'Don't do that!" or giving a complicated explanation won't leave a lasting impression. Here's some expert advice on age-appropriate ways to talk to your kids: Use these words to teach worthy lessons they'll take to heart.

FAIR PLAY

Sticky Situation: During a game of Candy Land, you catch your 5-year-old skipping ahead to position herself for an unfair win. You've read about "letting little ones win," but still, you don't want to reinforce cheating.

Wise Words: Don't use the term "cheating." Instead, teach her to play fair by subtly pointing her in the right direction. Try saying:

  • "That's not a fair move. I'll let you play that way with me, but when you're with your friends, it might make them mad at you."
  • Or: "Imagine if nobody played a game by the rules. What do you think would happen?" -- Martha B. Straus, Ph.D., author of No-Talk Therapy for Children and Adolescents

GRATITUDE

Sticky Situation: Your dinner guests bring a gift for your 4-year-old. He opens it, drops it on the floor, and walks away without saying 'thank you."

Wise Words: It's unrealistic to expect a preschooler to understand the value of gratitude, and your guests probably know this. Don't make a big deal about it. Simply say:

  • "Justin, please come back here. You forgot to say "'thank you' to the Smiths for bringing you a present."
  • If you prefer to let it go until later, that's okay too. You might bring up the subject at bedtime: 'In our family, after receiving a gift, we say 'thank you.' " If your son says he didn't like the gift, counter with: "The Smiths thought you would. But even when we don't like a gift, we say, 'Thank you for thinking of me.' " -- Chick Moorman, author of Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language That Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility

HELPFULNESS

Sticky Situation: After dinner, you ask your 6-year-old to help clear the dishes. He flatly refuses.

Wise Words: Ask him to stay seated, then say:

  • "Everyone pitches in to make the family work, and now you're old enough to help out too. But if you don't want to clear the dishes, let's make a list of things that would be helpful, and you can choose what you want to do."
  • Or: "Helping people makes their lives easier. Can you remember the difference it makes when I help you put your toys away? Now you can help me." -- Bonnie Harris, author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons and What You Can Do About It

FORGIVENESS

Sticky Situation: Your 3-year-old accidentally knocks over the block tower his 5-year-old sister just painstakingly built. He apologizes tearfully, but your daughter holds a grudge. "It's too late!" she snaps.

Wise Words: Give your daughter a chance to vent before expecting her to forgive. Here's your opening.

  • "I don't blame you for being upset. You worked hard on that tower. But it was an accident, and your little brother isn't able to be as careful as you." If she still insists her brother did it "on purpose," ask her to remember a time she might have done something accidentally, like spilling her cereal.
  • And if her brother did intentionally knock down the tower? Discuss the benefits of forgiveness by drawing on your own experience: "I know when I accept someone's apology it makes me feel good inside. Do you want to try forgiving your brother and seeing how it makes you feel?" -- Paul Coleman, Psy.D., author of How to Say It to Your Kids: The Right Words to Solve Problems, Soothe Feelings, and Teach Values

HONESTY

Sticky Situation: You discover an action figure in the pocket of your 6-year-old son's jeans that you know isn't his. He claims he found it. You're suspicious but let it go. Then you get a call from his friend's mom, who diplomatically asks whether your son mistakenly took the toy home from his afternoon playdate.

Wise Words: By this age, your son knows very well that taking a toy is wrong. Be direct.

  • "I just got a call from Johnny's mother. She said one of his toys is missing. It sounds as if you might have taken it without asking. What do you think? It's time for you to tell me the truth."
  • If your child still denies it, be stern: 'Stealing hurts people. Your friend feels bad. You probably feel bad too, knowing this toy doesn't belong to you. And lying about what you've done makes it even worse." In both instances, insist that your son return the toy as soon as possible. -- Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!

RESPECT

Sticky Situation: You drop in on your 7-year-old daughter's Sunday-school class and catch her playing with a yo-yo, deliberately ignoring the teacher.

Wise Words: When class is over, pull her aside and state the rule: no toys in Sunday school ever. Then encourage a deeper understanding of respect with a discussion.

  • "Paying attention is an important way to show respect. What are some other ways you can let your teacher know you respect her?"
  • If your child is quick to comprehend her mistake, reinforce her understanding with: 'That's the kind of thinking I like to hear! It sounds as if you understand what respect is." -- Arthur Dobrin, Ph.D., author of Teaching Right From Wrong: 40 Things You Can Do to Raise a Moral Child

GENEROSITY

Sticky Situation: After dinner, your 5-year-old brings out his bag of Halloween candy, and you ask nicely for one of your favorites. He hugs the bag to his chest and says, "No way."

Wise Words: Five-year-olds are not particularly good at sharing, especially candy! In this case, speak from your own experience.

  • "You know, when I don't want to share with somebody else, I end up feeling really bad. When I do share, I feel good because I know I've made the other person happy. Do you want to try it, and see whether it makes you feel happy too?"
  • Or simply suggest a compromise: "Why don't you spread out your candy? If you don't want me to have that particular piece, there's probably another one you can give me." -- Sal Severe

KINDNESS

Sticky Situation: You overhear your 6-year-old daughter and a group of her friends saying unkind things about a classmate.

Wise Words: This behavior is always hurtful, and you have an obligation to intervene in a direct way but without embarrassing your child. Walk right into the group, acknowledge that you overheard their conversation, and ask the girls one of these open-ended questions.

  • "You've probably all heard the golden rule: 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.' What do you think it means?"
  • Or simply: "How does it feel when someone in your class says something mean about you?" -- Martha Straus

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