How To Teach Children What’s Right Without Making Them Feel Wrong


My friends have a three-year-old. The same child who at age two ran up and down the hall just for the joy of running and didn’t know yet that anything was wrong, or even that wrong existed.

Now he’s a year older. And I’m watching his parents guide him toward appropriate behavior without causing him to feel that what he has been doing is wrong. It’s tricky.

We’re born knowing nothing about the rules. For instance, we don’t know that balls should be thrown but plates shouldn’t. We don’t know that kicking the dog isn’t what the dog wants. Or that shouting out demands isn’t fun for everyone. We don’t even know that hitting isn’t fabulous. We’re just doing whatever we want without knowing or wondering how others will feel about it.

But pretty quickly, our adults begin to herd us into a behavior groove that will take us effectively through life – or at least make dinnertime more convenient.

My friends want to teach their son appropriate behavior without making him feel wrong. So they’ve committed to using cause-effect rather than punishment.

Punishment doesn’t work.

If we’re ever unkind to someone, just because he or she was unkind to us – returning like for like – we’re usually left with an uncomfortable feeling that lets us know it wasn’t our best response to the situation. It was a fear-based, defensive response, because we’ve been taught to look out for ourselves. But no one learns better behavior from it.

And giving our children like for like can teach them the opposite of what we want them to learn. If we punish them, they won’t associate our treatment of them with their misbehavior. Instead, they’ll associate it with our expression of domination and manipulation. And they’ll resent us for it.

What works is to help our children realize what’s in their best interest, because that’s the reason they’ll follow the rules. So instead of showing our disapproval, it’s more important to teach them how to recognize what will work effectively for them in their lives and what won’t – which has nothing to do with whether they’re being bad or doing something wrong.

They’re always watching us.

As parents, it’s easy to become tellers. Then we fill our kids’ heads with so much info that it’s a wonder it’s not oozing out their ears. Actually, it is. They’re so busy watching what we do that it overrides most of what we say. So they’re learning most from our example.

Instead of becoming upset when they don’t want to share, it’ll help to look at whether we’re happy to share our most prized stuff. Do we loan out our car or our house unconditionally, meaning that, even if the other person breaks it, we’re not supposed to get upset?

Whatever we’re doing, our kids are going to use it as a model. For everything we tell them to do, they’re going to ask: “Why am I supposed to do this if you don’t?”

We need to be consistent because life isn’t.

Kids need to know they can depend on us. So rules shouldn’t change from moment to moment. That’s what parenting experts tell us. But most of us are not consistent, and neither is life. So we prepare our children best by teaching them to be adaptable.

Most important though is to let ourselves off the hook for being inconsistent. When we forgive ourselves for sometimes breaking the rules – when we encourage ourselves and praise ourselves easily and consistently – those qualities will be present in our parenting. And that will become the model for how our children will live, and how they’ll parent their children.

We can teach them to be smart.

My friends are avoiding punishment, and they’re using cause-effect instead. They let the consequences of their son’s actions be his teacher.

They want him to know that our actions create results that we’re responsible for, and that energy set in motion comes back to us. They want him to experience the cause-effect connection of his choices so that he learns to make smart decisions.

They’re teaching him how to think rather than telling him what he should think.

Helping them feel responsible puts them light-years ahead.

If we believe that people have the power to make us angry or sad, that they can offend or betray us and make our lives miserable – or that they can make us happy and make our lives fun and fulfilling – we’ll teach our kids to give their power away as well.

How we respond to life is an inside job. And we’re in charge of whether our experience is fun or miserable.

That’s what the word means: response-able. No one else is making us feel or think or act as we do. And helping our kids to realize that gives them a tremendous head start.

So let’s not teach our kids that their peers – either the cutest boy or girl in the class, or the bullies – control their feelings or their actions. Better to teach our kids to feel good anyway – about themselves – no matter what’s happening in life.

Life will always get messy. And it’s our job to help our kids know how to manage it without taking it personally.

Reclaiming our power means saying, “It’s not your responsibility whether I feel happy or angry. So you’re off the hook. I’m in charge, and I’ve decided to feel good anyway.”

Imagine the example we’ll set for our kids by showing them that we’re all responsible for choosing a healthy response. Never mind the other people.

If someone says something unkind, they’re probably feeling uncomfortable, unsafe, unloved, unloving. And it’s a dis-ease that we don’t need to catch. We don’t need to give back like for like. Compassion is the response that works best.

When we’re confident, they’re confident.

It will help our kids to learn early that, when people are stressed out and unkind and unsupportive, it’s probably because they believe it’s appropriate to act that way. Their beliefs justify their response. “I’m a busy person with a lot of important things going on. So much is expected of me that I don’t have time for everything. And I’m always exhausted. I just can’t handle it all. I’m supposed to stay on top of it, and it’s making me stressed, and I just can’t help myself.”

It’s a pervasive attitude today. Let’s not buy into it. And let’s not sell it to our kids.

When we feel confident – when we’re all right with ourselves and other people and life, without needing anyone or anything to change – we can handle the challenges that come. We can choose a sensible response when the world is tough. And if our children live with that model, they’re fortunate.

Who they are is not what they do.

Teaching kids to love themselves has nothing to do with what they do – and everything to do with whether they see us loving ourselves and whether we send them a consistent message of: “You’re great regardless of whether you behave or misbehave. That’s what you do – and what’s wonderful is who you are.”

Praising what they do works as long as they don’t hang their worth on it. If we’re constantly saying, “Good girl. Good boy. You’re wonderful because you did this thing,” we’ll teach them false value. And they may end up thinking: “If I don’t manage to accomplish things, I’m less worthwhile.”

When they misbehave, most important is to keep affirming them while helping them understand why their actions are ineffective. “You’re great, I love you, and what you just did didn’t work, did it?”

If our kids are having trouble with self-love, it’s probably because they’re using false evidence to decide whether they measure up. “I can’t love myself because I do this, and this, and this.”

By helping them separate who they are from what they do, they’ll naturally find themselves lovable.

Nothing teaches love like loving ourselves.

When we love ourselves, we’ll be able to stay loving to our children no matter what they do. And we’ll naturally come around to what will work for them, in order to prepare them for life.

Isn’t that what parenting’s about? To help our kids feel good about themselves no matter what they do, to feel right rather than wrong even when they make mistakes – to give them the tools to feel safe and loved, always.

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Author, Blogger, Contributor to Thrive Global, The Good Men Project, InspireMore and HuffPost