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Teaching Youth About Right and Wrong (Part 1)

If you’re like most American adults, you are concerned that some of the youth in your family are going to mess up their lives by bad habits and choices on some moral issue.

The ones I hear about the most are sex, money, family, religion, and drug or alcohol abuse. All too often, efforts to talk with younger people about such matters end in greater frustration for both parties, and a wider-than-ever gap between the generations on where they stand.

To prevent such frustrations, here are ten options for you in choosing how to talk about a moral issue with a younger person. The point is, if one method isn’t working, try another. You can use:

1. Punishment or Reward (pain or pleasure). You can emphasize positive or negative consequences of a young person’s choices.

2. Promotional or Emotional Consequences. Bribes (food, money, favors) and extortions (threats of spanking and other punishments) are special promotions that work with younger people. Later on, you can focus on emotional consequences to self and others: “Dad will be proud of you”, and “You’ll be glad you did it.”

3. Considering self or Others. To young children, only oneself much, but as they grow up, they become more interested in other people. You can’t teach them to care about others until they are ready, so if they’re selfish, make it worth their while to behave.

4. Protecting the child or also the Child’s relationships. Young children don’t care much about getting along with others, but later they begin to care how their moral choices affect those relationships. Your discipline can be designed to restore broken trust with their friends and family.

5. Discipline or Self-discipline. Children understand that adults reward and punish, but as they mature, it’s more affective to ask first, “To teach you not to do that again, what do you think would be the right punishment?”

6. Prophecy or Parable. To teach what consequences would come from continuing to make immoral choices, you can just tell them what will happen (“No one will want to be your friend.”), or you can tell them a story to make the nitty-gritty details of the consequences sink in.

7. Lecture or Modeling. The two most popular parental discipline methods are just saying “No.” and “Because I said so.” When they stop working, parents go to lecturing, and tragically over the years, the less they are listened to, the longer these lectures become. Modeling good behavior is both the most effective approach, and the most difficult, but it helps with all ages.

Now I’m not going to tell you where to draw all the lines about what you should allow, for that is a very personal matter. But I will give you three key principles for predicting which methods will work best.

1. Speak to their maturity level. In the choices listed above, the more basic way to approach issues with immature youth is given first. When one method isn’t working, try one for a different maturity level.

2. Speak to the concerns of their heart. This will require you to listen to them first, to understand what they care about the most. This way you won’t sound preachy, but just giving them new and better ways to get what they want.

3. They should get the credit or blame for their good or bad choices, not you. Your job is to choose the right lessons to teach, the right ways to teach them, and to make sure you practice what you preach. When, how and whether they learn is always up to them.

In my next column I will give you three more ways to talk with your loved ones about moral issues. These three are my favorites, and they deserve to be discussed in some detail, because unless you were lucky enough to have parents who used these with you, you probably wouldn’t think to use them with your own children.

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About Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Shelbyville, KY, 502 633 2860.