My oldest son was just five years old when I was faced with a new variety of parenting conundrum. Here’s what I wrote back then:

“There’s an 8 year old boy in our neighborhood who frequently comes by to play with Cole. He seems not quite right–he doesn’t leave when I say Cole is gone or can’t come out, and bangs on the door for half an hour sometimes.

Saturday, when said child came by, Cole told me that he doesn’t want to play with him. Something about it tuned me in and I asked Cole if THE CHILD made him feel uncomfortable. He started crying and said yes. I told Cole to listen to those feelings and that I would take care of it.

I knew I had to go talk to the parents. I didn’t want to be mean, but if Cole and I both were getting a vibe from this kid then we are done. I decided I would frame it just as the boy being too old for Cole.”

Yesterday the boy and his mom’s boyfriend came by together. I told them that Cole wasn’t going to be able to play since he is only in kindergarten. Neighbor child didn’t get it. Adult male asked if something had happened or just the age thing. I assured him the kid hadn’t done anything, though it seems weird that he asked. Man seemed to understand and handled it well. The kid did not.

I’m a bit older now and have a bit more experience. I still feel sympathetic to this neighbor child and hope he is doing well. But as a mother, my priority has to be with my own kids. Any doubts I had back then about listening to the whisperings of spirit are long gone.

I can’t prepare my sons for every situation that will come up in life. That scares me at times. I can help them learn to listen to their gut, their conscience, God—whatever you want to call it. Those instincts are powerful and can guide them when I’m not around.

Many get off track when they ignore the niggling sense that they are doing something wrong. Over time, their foibles grow and they become desensitized. I’ve seen it happen with members of my own family who have quieted their conscience so much that they seem to have no moral code.

Around the age of six, children are ready to discuss more formally how to listen to their conscience.

How can I teach my children to listen to the quiet impressions, so much less dramatic than loud music or television advertising or even the chatter of conversation?

Child rearing expert and author Dr. William Sears says we must start by teaching right and wrong. Starting from birth, children learn about acceptable behavior by observing others. “Think of conscience as an internal “bother button” that goes off if a child thinks or acts contrary to the code he’s internalized. There’s also a positive side to a conscience—a child feels good inside when he makes good choices by himself,” writes Sears.

Around the age of six, children are ready to discuss more formally how to listen to their conscience. I’ve been trying to point out when my youngest son, Owen, feels bad because he’s done something wrong. He often starts crying from shame, rather than from punishment, when he’s taken something from his brother. I’ll say something like, ‘You feel bad because you know you made a wrong choice. Listen to that feeling.’ I want him to recognize that prick of conscience.

Ideally, each of us would pay attention to the feelings of our hearts and use such promptings to guide our behavior. Think of times you’ve gone with a gut instinct, even when unsure of why. When we are trying to listen, we’re open to help from outside sources.

Teaching my children to access that assistance is one of the best things I can do as a mother. Knowing how? Just a little harder, requiring sensitivity of my own.