Many parents think that it’s premature to teach values to a toddler or preschooler. But that’s a misconception. Here are the values that all children should develop by their fifth birthday, and some easy ways to make them stick.
Value #1: Honesty
Help Kids Find a Way, To Tell the Truth
The best way to encourage truthfulness in your child is to be a truthful person yourself. Consider this story: Carol decided to limit the number of playdates between her 3-year-old son, Chris, and his friend Paul. The boys had been fighting a lot recently, and Carol thought they should spend some time apart. So when Paul’s mother called one afternoon to arrange a get-together, Carol told her that Chris was sick.
Overhearing this, her son asked, “Am I sick, Mommy? What’s wrong with me?” Carol, taken aback by her son’s frightened look, told him she had only said he was sick because she didn’t want to hurt Paul’s mother’s feelings. Carol then launched into a complicated explanation of the distinctions between the various types of lies, and Chris was confused. All he understood was that fibbing is sometimes okay-and that, in fact, it’s what people do.
Your child takes his cues from you, so it’s important that you try to avoid any kind of deception, even a seemingly innocuous one. (Never, for instance, say something like “Let’s not tell Daddy we got candy this afternoon.”) Let your child hear you being truthful with other adults. Carol would have been better off saying, “This isn’t a good day for a playdate. I’m concerned that the boys were fighting so much last week. I think they need a break.”
Another way to promote the value of honesty: Don’t overreact if your child lies to you. Instead, help her find a way, to tell the truth. When the mother of 4-year-old Janice walked into the family room one afternoon, she saw that her large potted plant had been toppled and that several branches had been snapped off. She knew right away what had happened: Once before, she had seen Janice making her Barbie dolls “climb the trees,” and she’d told her daughter at the time that the plants were off-limits. When Mom demanded an explanation, a guilty-looking Janice blamed the family dog.
Janice’s mom reacted sensibly: She interrupted her child’s story and said, “Janice, I promise I won’t yell. Think about it for a minute, and then tell me what really happened.” After a moment, the child owned up to her misdeed. As a consequence, Janice had to help clean up the mess and was not allowed to watch television that afternoon, but her mom made sure to emphasize how much she appreciated her daughter’s honesty. In doing so, she taught the child an important lesson: Even if being honest isn’t always easy or comfortable, you-and other people-always feel better if you tell the truth.
Value #2: Justice
Insist That Children Make Amends
At a recent family gathering, Amy and Marcus, 4-year-old cousins, were making castles out of wooden blocks. Suddenly, Amy knocked over Marcus’s castle, and he started to cry. Witnessing the scene, Amy’s father chided his daughter and ordered her to apologize. Amy dutifully said, “I’m sorry.”
Then her dad took her aside and asked, “Do you know why you pushed over his blocks?” She told him that she was mad because Marcus’s castle was bigger than hers. The dad told her that though this was no excuse for destroying her cousin’s castle, he could understand her feelings. He then sent her back to play.
The father’s reaction was similar to that of many psychologically savvy parents: He wanted his daughter to identify and express her feelings and to understand why she behaved as she did. That’s okay, but it isn’t enough. In order to help children internalize a true sense of justice, parents need to encourage them to take some action to remedy a wrong. For example, Amy’s dad might have suggested that she help Marcus rebuild his castle or that she bring him some cookies as a gesture of apology.
Saying “I’m sorry” is pretty easy for a child, and it lets her off the hook without forcing her to think. Having a child make amends in a proactive way conveys a much stronger message. If you’re aware that your child has acted badly toward someone, help him think of a way to compensate. Maybe he can give one of his trucks to a playmate whose toy he has damaged. Perhaps he could draw a picture for his sister after teasing her all day. By encouraging your child to make such gestures, you emphasize the importance of treating people fairly-an essential value that will one day help him negotiate the complicated world of peer-group relationships.
Value #3: Determination
Encourage Them To Take on a Challenge
Five-year-old Jake showed his mother a drawing that he’d made with his new crayons. “That’s very bright and colorful,” she told him. “Nice job!” The child then ran to his room and dashed off another drawing to bring to his mom for praise-then another and another.
“Each one was sloppier than the last,” his mother said. “I didn’t know what to say.” A good response might have been: “Well, Jake, that drawing isn’t as carefully done as your other one. Did you try your best on that?”
Determination is a value that you can encourage from a very young age. The easiest way to do so is by avoiding excessive praise and by providing children with honest feedback, delivered in a gentle, supportive fashion.
Another powerful way to help kids develop determination is to encourage them to do things that don’t come easily-and to praise them for their initiative. If your son is shy, for instance, quietly encourage him to approach kids on the playground, even if it makes him feel nervous and scared. If your daughter is quick to blow a fuse, teach her strategies (such as counting to ten or taking a deep breath) for holding back a temper tantrum. Congratulate kids when they manage to do things that are difficult for them. The child who hears “Good for you, I know that was really tough!” is bolstered by the recognition and becomes even more determined to keep trying.
Value #4: Consideration
Teach Them To Think about Others’ Feelings
Anne was frustrated because her daughters, ages 3 and 4, ended up whining and fighting every time she took them grocery shopping. “I finally told them that we needed to figure out how to do our shopping without everyone, including me, feeling upset,” Anne says.
The mom asked the girls for suggestions on how to make the trip to the grocery store a better experience for all. The 4-year-old suggested that they bring snacks from home so they wouldn’t nag for cookies. The 3-year-old said she would sing quietly to herself so she would feel happy.
The girls remembered their promises, and the next trip to the supermarket went much more smoothly. Leaving the store, the younger girl asked, “Do you feel really upset now, Mommy?” The mother assured her that she felt just fine and remarked how nice it was that nobody got into an argument.
Do these small problem-solving exercises actually help a child learn the value of consideration? You bet. Over time, even a young child sees that words or actions can make another person smile or feel better and that when she’s kind to someone else, that person is nice to her. This feedback encourages other genuine acts of consideration.
Value #5: Love
Be Generous with Your Affection
Parents tend to think that children are naturally loving and generous with their affection. This is true, but for loving sentiments to last, they need to be reciprocated. It’s chilling to realize that over the course of a typical busy day, the phrase “I love you” is probably the one that a child is least likely to hear.
Let your child see you demonstrate your love and affection for the people in your life. Kiss and hug your spouse when the kids are around. Talk to your children about how much you love and appreciate their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
And, of course, don’t let a day pass without expressing your affection for your child himself. Show your love in unexpected ways: Pack a note in his lunch box. Tape a heart to the bathroom mirror so he’ll see it when he brushes his teeth. Give her a hug for no reason. Don’t allow frantic morning drop-offs or frenetic afternoon routines squeeze loving gestures out of your day.
I can practically guarantee you that the more you say “I love you” to your child, the more your child will say “I love you” back. The more hugs and kisses you give, the more your home will be filled with love and affection. And when our children feel free to express their love to us, we instill in them perhaps the greatest value of all.