We discipline our kids for a reason: we want them to be good.

When a parent yells at their children or sends them to their room, it’s not because they want their kids to suffer. We’re not just hate-filled gargoyles who want to stamp out fun wherever we find it. We’re trying to help our kids understand that their behavior affects other people. We want to make them better people.

But there’s a difference between raising a child who is afraid of getting in trouble and a child who understands the difference between right and wrong. When our kids grow up, we won’t be around every minute of their lives. If we want them to make good decisions when we’re not around, they have to be motivated by more than just fear of getting in trouble.

Don’t rely on fear

For a lot of us, yelling is the only way we know how to do it, after all, it works. When you blow up on a child every time they don’t do what you want, their behavior changes. Those kids will make a mental list of everything that makes you angry, and they’ll make sure you don’t catch them doing it.

Something happens, though, in your kids’ heads when you try to scare them into being good. They stop noticing the effect they are having on other people and, instead, focus on the consequences to themselves. Being good becomes something they do to avoid getting in trouble, instead of something they decide to do.

They might be good when you’re around – but it won’t last. The second you turn your back, all that good behavior is going to stop.

Let your kids choose

Children aren’t evil. Even babies are naturally capable of kindness. Studies have found that babies as young as 14 months old will try to help people in need. There’s a natural goodness in every person, right there from birth. We’re social animals. We want to help each other out.

One of the best ways to kill that natural goodness, though, is to make kids do it. Children are actually more likely to help someone if they do it of their own free will. Experiments with children suggest that, if you force a child to do something good for someone, they’ll do the bare minimum, but if you let them decide whether they want to do it or not, they’ll go beyond.

What’s more is that they’ll keep doing it. Children who are forced to do charity work only do it when they’re forced to, but children who decide to do it themselves will keep it up. It becomes a whole part of their being. In fact, the more parents give their kids rewards, the less likely the kids are to act generously.

Teach your children to control their emotions

Remember when I said that kids are naturally good? Remember when you rolled your eyes and said, “That’s not my kid”? You weren’t wrong – just because kids are capable of goodness doesn’t mean they always do it. But there are reasons for that, and one of the big ones is emotion.

Kids get mad. They have impulses. They have urges. When people get emotional, no matter how old they are, they start making different decisions.

That’s one of the biggest challenges of being human – controlling your emotions. We’re filled with feelings that tell us to do things that are incredibly destructive, and we have to learn how to resist them. That’s a big part of being good.


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Talk About It

If you want your children to be able to walk into a new situation and figure out the right thing to do without your guidance, they need to be able to think things through – and that takes practice.

That’s why we need to talk about what’s right and wrong. Bring up ethical scenarios, like, “If you saw someone getting bullied, what would you do?” and let your kids weigh in. Listen to their thoughts, share a few of your own, and help them practice the mental process of how to be good.

It’s something you can work into any part of the day. You can do it when you’re reading stories or you can make a whole game out of it – but it’s especially useful when your kids misbehave.

When your kids do something bad, don’t just get them in trouble – ask them, “What do you think you could do differently next time?” Turn that bad moment into an actual learning opportunity and they’ll learn to be better people.

Walk The Talk

In the end, though, the most important thing is just to set a good example. Children copy their parents – it’s just what they do. No matter how you raise them, they’re going to end up an awful lot like you.

If you tell your kids to do what you say and not what you do, your kids are going to see that there’s a difference between the rules you set and how you lead your life, and that’s going to teach them to do the same in their own life – they’ll learn that they can set rules that they don’t necessarily have to hold themselves to.

On the other hand, when we practice what they preach, they not only copy us but they also get better at controlling their urges. When kids know they can trust their parents, it affects the way they see the world – and it makes it a lot easier to grow up a decent person.