How to Teach Kids to Be Good (When Everyone Else Is Being Bad)

Age-by-age strategies for helping your little one do the right thing.

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Kids aren't magicians, but there's one astounding trick they perform more often than you'd like: Before your very eyes, your quiet, considerate child transforms himself into a belligerent, sneaky, or rude little monster, the kind of kid who makes other parents wonder, "Didn't they teach him anything at home?"

The short answer is yes, you did. But no matter how well your child has learned that shoving and screaming are unacceptable, those rules seem to evaporate when certain less-polite friends are around. "Kids have a natural desire to be good, but it's harder for them when they see other children breaking the rules," says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard University and a Parents adviser. So while you try to raise your children to be honest, kind, and respectful, you also have to help them develop a conscience -- the inner voice that warns, "Don't do that," even when everyone else is doing it. This doesn't happen overnight. "Moral thinking comes in stages," Dr. Kagan says. Children don't begin to understand the meaning of right and wrong until they're about 2, and their motivation for being good changes as they grow. But you'll negotiate the process more easily if you know how to handle sticky situations like these.

The Wild Bunch

Peer pressure: Whenever your friend and her out-of-control kids come to visit, your 2-year-old starts pushing, hitting, and grabbing toys too.

Why it happens: Toddlers are impulsive and easily influenced by what's happening around them, explains Maurice Elias, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and coauthor of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting.

What to do: Calmly take your toddler aside and remind him how to play fair. Keep it simple: "Do you remember how to play nicely? It's not okay to shove Peter or take the truck away from him." Return him to his friends and focus the group on something quieter, like coloring or doing a puzzle.

Prevent it next time: Before your guests arrive, go over the rules. Say, "There's no pushing or hitting with your friends. I don't want to see that today. If I do, you won't be able to play with them." And when your child is acting nicely, be sure to praise him.

Toys 'R' Mine

Peer pressure: Your child tells you she took a block from preschool. When you tell her that's wrong, she replies, "It's okay, Samantha did it too. And Miss Karen didn't see us!"

Why it happens: Your 3-year-old knows that taking things is wrong, yet she may not fully understand why. And though she doesn't want to get into trouble, she reasons that since classmates took toys and the teacher didn't catch anyone, it must be all right.

What to do: Keep calm and say, "I'm glad you told me." Getting angry will only discourage her from being honest with you in the future. Instead, say to her: "Your blocks at home belong to you, but this block belongs to the school. We'll give it back and tell the teacher you're sorry." Explain that she must ask before taking something that's not hers. Help her to understand that she may borrow a toy with permission, but taking a toy without asking is stealing, and stealing is always wrong.

Prevent it next time: "It may take a few incidents for preschoolers to learn the lesson," Dr. Elias says. But if it happens too often, tell your child that next time, she'll have to give a toy of hers to the school.

Potty Mouth

Peer pressure: Your 4-year-old has begun calling his little sister "stupid" and "butthead" -- words he's picked up in preschool.

Why it happens: Preschoolers often try out bad language to see what they can get away with. "Words help kids this age assert their independence," says child psychologist Steven Richfield, Psy.D., coauthor of The Parent Coach.

What to do: Don't overreact. If you do, your child will learn that these words have shock value, and he'll use them to get attention. Explain that even though his friends use this kind of language, it's not nice. Add, "Remember when your cousin called you stupid? It hurt your feelings. Your sister doesn't like it when you call her names." Then have him apologize to her.

Prevent it next time: "Give kids appropriate words to express frustration," Dr. Richfield says. Tell your child it's okay to say to a sibling, "Stop bothering me." In addition, think of ways to nurture empathy when you're reading or watching TV together, suggests Barbara Unell, cocreator of a Kansas education program Kindness Is Contagious . . . Catch It! If a character is being teased, you could say, "That's mean. How do you think that makes him feel? What could his friends have done to help?"

Rule Breaker

Peer pressure: Your kindergartner knows she's not allowed to play with your antique teapot. Yet you see her using it for a tea party with a pal. When you ask her about it, she says, "Ashley said she wouldn't be my friend unless we played with the pretty teapot."

Why it happens: Though 5-year-olds know they should do what you say, their friends are becoming increasingly important. A kindergartner's rational thinking ("I know I can't play with the teapot") is overwhelmed by the emotions of the moment ("I want my friend to like me").

What to do: Find a replacement for the off-limits item, Dr. Richfield suggests. Say to her, "This teapot isn't a toy, but here's one that you can use." Later, talk about peer pressure in terms your child can understand: "Friends shouldn't boss you around" or "No one can make you do something that's against the rules."

Prevent it next time: "This is the perfect opportunity to talk to your child about using her thinking side, the part of her that stops to pay attention to the rules," Dr. Richfield says. Point out some questions she should ask herself before doing something that she thinks is wrong: "What can happen?" "Is this safe?" "Could I get into trouble?" And tell her she never has to do anything that makes her feel as if she's breaking the rules. Children won't be able to stand up for what's right unless they know what to say in times of temptation, so you should also practice phrases like "No, I don't want to," "It's not right," "My parents told me not to," and "We'll get into trouble if we do that." Explaining the reason for saying "No" helps your child remind herself about the possible consequences and strengthens her conviction to do the right thing.

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