There have been times over the years when I’ve been downright worried about whether one of my children would ever develop a conscience about his or her behavior. It’s happened with all of my three children at one time or another and I can assure you that while we still have a few bumps, overall, they do have a conscience about their behavior and how they interact with others. BUT, it hasn’t been a linear path and there have been days when I was mighty worried…
Maybe there are some children who are born with a well-developed conscience, but it has been my experience that it is learned and socialized behavior. Kids have to learn over time how their decisions and actions affect those people around them. They are so self-focused, that they just don’t see or automatically understand how other people feel. It takes time and practice and development in order to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
I’ve found that role-play and discussing things after the fact are good ways that parents can help children develop a conscience. Pointing out to your child in a non-charged, safe environment why someone else got their feelings hurt, or why something happened the way it did and going over what else could have been done is good. This doesn’t JUST have to be something your child did either. If you see two adults get into an argument in the grocery store, this is a great opportunity to have a “what else could they have done?” conversation in the car or on the walk home.
Asking open-ended questions like “How would that make you feel?” and “What do you think she thought when you said that?” Instead of telling the child what he or she should do or say are good ways to go about it too. Expect that your child might not automatically “get” why his behavior was hurtful. Sometimes, when a child says, “That wouldn’t have bothered me!” he’s being honest—it wouldn’t have. But, developing a conscience means learning how your actions and behaviors affect other people and that takes time and practice. As a parent, you can have patience and try not to worry that your child is a heartless sociopath—he’ll learn. Sensitivity and a strong conscience take time.
See Also: Recognize Efforts, Not Results