I have noticed that very young children are quite honest and open about their wrongdoing.
A child who is told to stay in the living room and not come into the kitchen will slide one foot into the kitchen and then look at the adult to see what they will do. The child is not hiding what they are doing– it’s more like they are experimenting to find out what will happen.
What the adult does next matters
One little girl saw some pretty headbands with sparkles at a friend’s house where she was playing. As Chloe and her mom were walking home, the mom noticed Chloe holding the sparkly headbands. “Where did you get those?” “From Hannah’s house.” “Did Hannah give them to you?” “No.” So they marched right back and returned the headbands to Hannah and her mother with an apology from Chloe.
What did this little girl learn about wrongdoing and guilt?
- Stealing is wrong. I should not take what doesn’t belong to me.
- When I do something wrong, the way to handle it is to go back and acknowledge what I did.
- The apology should come from me, not from my mother. No one else is responsible for my actions.
- When I admit what I did and apologize, I am forgiven and the relationship is restored.
Incidences of wrongdoing are a valuable learning experience for children. The way the important adults in their lives respond becomes the way the child will respond for the rest of their life when they do wrong.
Imagine this mom had behaved differently. What different lessons might be hard-wired into Chloe’s internal guidance system?
“Did Hannah give them to you?” “No.”
- Response #1: “Oh. Well, I’m sure it’s no big deal. They’re just hair bands.” And they keep walking.
- Lesson #1: Stealing is no big deal. You don’t need to address it. OR: It’s better to not let people know if you’ve done something wrong.
- Response #2: Seeing the hair bands and pretending not to. Saying nothing.
- Lesson #2: This is acceptable behavior.
- Response #3: Taking the child back to return the hair band with the mom apologizing to the other mom.
- Lesson #3: I am not responsible for my actions– my parents are. It brings shame on them when I do something wrong. My parents need to right the wrong, not me.
- Response #4: Yelling at the child, bringing the issue up multiple times, shaming the child in front of others.
- Lesson #4: I am a bad person because I did this. If I do something wrong in the future, I should hide it.
The way the important adults in their lives respond becomes the way children will respond for the rest of their life when they do wrong.
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