How Children Learn to Behave


How Children Learn to Behave

Eight-year-old Mark Jones enters his room after school to change his clothes only to discover his four-year-old brother, Timmy, playing his record player. Angrily Mark grabs the record Timmy is about to put on the player, slams the record player shut, and forcefully pushes Timmy out of the room as he shouts, “How many times have I told you to leave my record player alone. I don’t want you EVER to touch my things again!”

Timmy runs sobbing to his mother in the kitchen. Mother tries to comfort the tearful Timmy, then hurries to Mark’s room and says, “Mark, you are older and know more about leaving other people’s things alone than Timmy. I want you to apologize to your little brother right now.” Mark stubbornly refuses, replying that Timmy should not have been playing with his record player. Mother then closes the bedroom door after telling Mark he can come out of his room when he is ready to apologize to Timmy. Mark screams at the closed door, “I’ll never come out because I’ll never apologize!”

Sister Jones, the ward Primary president, is well aware of the admonition of King Benjamin: “… neither will ye suffer that [your children] transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin. …

“But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another.” (Mosiah 4:14–15.)

She also knows the Lord’s commandment to parents to teach children “to walk uprightly before the Lord.” (D&C 68:28.) Therefore, she is troubled when such a scene occurs.

Latter-day Saint parents hope that each of their children reaches adulthood capable of discerning right from wrong and of choosing to do the right thing in all situations. They simply want their children to live the commandments. Unfortunately some parents, in their zeal to teach their children to live the commandments, forget that while children may be naughty, they are holy and incapable of sin. (See Moro. 8:8; D&C 74:7.)

There are some parents who treat their children as though they were little more than savages, and who impose stringent rules and severe punishment for breaking those rules. Or they may feel that since children are incapable of sin, they should be allowed to do whatever they wish whenever they wish with no limitations or consistent rewards for appropriate behavior. If these two extremes are unacceptable, what must faithful Latter-day Saint parents do to teach their children to keep the commandments?

The most difficult commandments seem to be those that admonish people to live together in harmony and good will. Such principles of right or good behavior or codes of conduct are understood by society as moral or ethical principles.

Studies of moral reasoning and moral behavior in children during the past decade, some of them conducted recently at Brigham Young University, suggest some principles of development and behavior that may serve as guidelines for parents as they teach their children to live the commandments, including those universal moral and ethical principles accepted by most civilized societies.

Principle 1: Children under the age of eight find it difficult, if not impossible, to perceive another person’s point of view.

The essence of morality is the ability of an individual to see things from another person’s point of view and to disregard his own point of view, if necessary, for the good of that other person. Such ability develops very gradually and is almost nonexistent in children under six. They are in the egocentric stage where they see no difference between their own thinking and that of others, between their own feelings and those of others. This is not the same thing as selfishness. A selfish person can see the other person’s point of view but disregards it in favor of his own. A three-year-old who refuses to share his toy is incapable of perceiving how important that toy may be to another child. All the reasoning in the world will not teach that child to see the other child’s point of view.

Principle 2: Children can learn to demonstrate moral behavior even though they do not or cannot understand the reasons for such behavior.

What LDS parent would wait until his child was old enough to understand the reasons for prayer before he taught him how to pray? Similarly, a child can learn to use his “indoor voice” when in his home, to put away his toys when he has finished playing with them, to say “please” and “thank you” on appropriate occasions, to leave money and other important possessions where they belong, to use words instead of physical force with another child, to share a valued possession, to get ready for bed at the end of a five-minute prompting, to come to the dinner table when called.

As the child grows in experience, he can gradually learn the reasons for such behavior. The questions children ask often can be a guide to the reasoning they can understand.

Principle 3: Children tend to do those things which are followed by pleasant consequences.

If a parent tells a child he is appreciated for using his “indoor voice,” putting his toys away, sharing his toy, or getting ready for bed on time, the child probably will continue to do those things under the appropriate circumstances. If a child is learning how to do something for the first time, he may need a reward that is more tangible, such as a candy bar, a movie, an ice cream sundae, or a new book. Each child has his own unique reward system, although some rewards seem universally desirable, such as ice cream, a favorite television show, and verbal approval.

When a child is being rewarded for desired, appropriate behavior, he is not being bribed. Bribery occurs when a person is offered a reward for corrupt or immoral behavior. Children should be taught how to behave and then given the blessings (pleasant consequences) that result from good behavior. This is the way the Lord works with his children on the earth. (See D&C 82:10.)

Principle 4: Children tend to do what they see important people in their lives do (that is, parents, teachers, big brothers and sisters, and peers). If there is a discrepancy between what an important person does and what he says, the child will tend to do what he has seen and not what he has heard.

The power of example cannot be stressed too strongly. However, some examples are more powerful than others. In most cases the child’s parents are his most powerful examples. Unfortunately, undesirable examples are also powerful in the lives of children, particularly those on television. The important thing to remember is that if you want a child to do something, you should be an example of that behavior yourself.

Too often parents counteract what they say by what they do. What about the mother who tells her children never to tattle on someone or tell tales about friends, and then turns around and gossips with her neighbor? Or what about the father who admonishes his children to obey the laws of the community and then exceeds the speed limit, in order to keep an important appointment?

One BYU graduate student studied the effects of consistent and inconsistent verbal instructions and actual behavior of models with a group of four-year-old children. 1 Each child played a game with a model (an adult who was an example to the child), where the goal was to throw beanbags into the holes of a cardboard clown’s face. Each of the children in the first type of training was told to stand behind the line when throwing the beanbag. The model then showed the child how to throw the beanbag by standing behind the line herself. After she took her turn, the child took his turn.

In the second type of training group, each child was instructed to stand behind the line as in the first training group. However, the model, when taking her turn, consistently broke the rule by stepping over the line. After each training session, the model would leave the experimental room with instructions to the child to throw the beanbags as many times as possible while she made a phone call. Then she would come back and see how the child was doing.

An observer behind a one-way mirror counted the number of times the child threw the beanbags and how many times he stepped over the line. It was found that there were more rule infractions among children who saw the model break the rule, in spite of instructions, than among those who saw the model keep the rule.

However, an interesting finding was that the children in both training groups tended to obey the rule rather than break it. These children obviously had a strong resistance to the temptation to break the rule. One wonders how strong this resistance would be if the children over a period of years were exposed to models (parents, teachers, and others) who said one thing and did another.

Principle 5: Children who can recognize, label, and talk about their feelings in an atmosphere of acceptance are more likely to keep the commandments and resist temptation. In general, children are more at the mercy of their external environment than are adults. They respond impulsively, quickly, and often highly emotionally to stimuli in their environment. They haven’t learned the techniques of control many adults have learned.

One of the first steps in learning control is to recognize and label how you are feeling at any given moment or in a given situation. The child who can say, “You are making me feel very angry right now,” is in a far better position to handle his feelings than the child who is unable to do so. Recognizing and labeling a feeling often drains off the energy normally used in inappropriate behavior in certain situations.

The child who has had a favorite toy taken away by another child can meet the situation only by physical retaliation or running to an adult, unless he has learned to tell the other person what he is feeling.

Eight-year-old Mark, in the episode at the beginning of this article, apparently did not have the skill to tell his brother Timmy how he felt when he saw Timmy playing his record player. His mother, Sister Jones, became so emotionally involved in the altercation between the two boys that she too was unable to recognize the feelings of either child. She seemed more interested in the “right” behavior and ignored the feelings of both children.

Sister Jones could have said to the crying Timmy, “I know you wanted very much to play a record on Mark’s player. But Mark is afraid you will damage his record player because you are so young. That would make Mark very unhappy. Mark has said he would let you hear records on his record player if you ask him first. He’s feeling very angry with you right now because you didn’t ask him if you could play a record. When he is feeling less angry you may ask him to play a record for you.”

This explanation might have helped each child to recognize his own feelings and to feel less angry, because someone understood, or accepted, how he felt without accusing him of anything.

Forcing a child to apologize to another child, regardless of the provocation, may simply teach the child to deny his feelings or find another and less acceptable means to express them. In the statement, “When he is feeling less angry you may ask him to play you a record,” Sister Jones could have provided an acceptable way to solve the problem for both children.

Children who are not accustomed to such an accepting response toward feelings may continue to fight back for a while. The parent, rather than losing control, should then continue to recognize the child’s feelings, although it may be necessary to physically remove the child from the situation.

The child who receives consistent acceptance of his feelings is more likely to recognize those situations where he is strongly tempted but be able to resist the temptation, because he can recognize he is being tempted and that both he and those he loves will be pleased with him for resisting the temptation. Thus he is well on his way toward self-control.

Principle 6: There is often little correlation between what a child thinks is good or bad and what he actually does in a given situation.

Some psychologists suggest that a child will learn to act morally if he first learns to think morally. However, there is little evidence to support this point of view. Unfortunately much of the instruction in church classes has been geared toward helping the child think morally or righteously. It is far easier to teach a child to think correctly than to teach him to act correctly. A recent study at Brigham Young University bears this out. 2 A graduate student and her colleagues successfully trained four- and five-year-olds to verbally solve conflict situations between children in illustrated stories, thus teaching them to reason and think correctly. However, when these same children were confronted individually with a real problem, where another child took a balloon away from them, their actual behavior did not show the same consistency of maturity as their reasoning or thinking in the story situations.

These principles of behavior, particularly related to moral behavior, should aid you in responding appropriately to your child and teaching him new behavior. Don’t expect him to be perfect all at once. He will grow as you do, precept upon precept. And don’t expect too much of yourself to begin with. It takes time and practice with successful results to learn to teach children.

Dr. Vance is associate professor of child development and family relationships and instructional psychologist with the Instructional Research and Development Department at Brigham Young University.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Marsha Lee Johnson, “The Effect of Inconsistent Verbal Instruction and Nonverbal Behavior on Imitation Behavior In Children,” unpublished masters thesis, Brigham Young University, 1971.

  2.   2.

    Linda Cropper, “Training and Its Effect on the Moral Judgments of Prekindergarten Children In the Area of Reciprocity,” unpublished masters thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972.