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How to help ensure your child develops a conscience that will protect them

There is one factor that will prepare your child better to enter adulthood than any of the following (that parents often over value): intelligence, athleticism, physical attractiveness, and socioeconomic status. This one factor is becoming rarer by day, yet will get your child through the darkest of nights. What I speak of is your child’s conscience.

A conscience is that part of our being that is not just reflective, but constraining. It calls us to think as much or more about consequences even in the face of hungry and even ravenous desires. We have all seen how sad it is to watch “good kids” ruin their lives with one bad decision. That is all it takes! The stereotypical example is young and smart girls with bright futures who get pregnant in their teens. Much more common than you think.

As a parent you want to be comforted by the idea that even when you are not around your child has that sage and sobering voice inside of them that is like their guardian angel. And a conscience is not just a protective factor, when deeply rooted in passion it also impels people to greatness. Heroes have deep rooted consciences, they do the right thing regardless of fear and even the possibility of death. A “social conscience” is often THE driving force behind those who look beyond themselves and make a mark on their Community, or sometimes History. Are you raising a child who will make a mark?

Concerningly, study upon study shows that the younger generations are becoming more and more relativistic with their ethics. For example, cheating has become more and more common even in places of higher learning. Music is often downloaded from pirate sites with no care for whether the artist should be compensated for their work. There is so much “eye candy” for kids to taste all within arms reach at any time via the Internet and other technological addictions.

So, what are you to do if you want your child to have a robust conscience? As a behavioral scientist and counselor who was sat in the same room with a uniquely broad variety of people, many of them children and adolescents who hve shared their most intimate secrets and struggles, I have directly experienced exemplary and noble character, as well as witnessed sociopathic and criminal tendencies.

What I have found is, one key factor that successful parents use to maximize their child’s chances of developing a deeply rooted conscience is ensuring their child associates misbehavior with deeply FELT consequences. In other words, these parents did not simply reprimand their child but rather made sure that deep in that child’s nervous system that child felt a “sting”. We can define a “sting” as a very unpleasant feeling that lingers long after that misbehavior occurred.

We all know that when you were stung by a bee it leaves a memorable enough mark upon your mind that you are acutely careful around bees. Consequences in some ways should be like be bites; they should sting painfully. Of course, we are not trying to break the spirit of your child, but we must help them root their sense of right and wrong not just in their cognitive operating system, but in their nervous (or feeling) system. If your child’s conscience is rooted in both, then they have a “full bodied” sense of rightness and wrongness. And that is what they need in a jungle of eye candy.

Think about it this way: if they only behave because they THINK that is the right thing to do, then when strong and competing feelings are aroused their very likely to follow the feelings. We are very “heat of the moment” creatures, and that is why a moral conscience that is only cognitively based is not durable and will fail when it is needed most, in the heat of the moment. In other words, if your child’s ideas of right and wrong are as dry and generic as a mathematical proof, they will be at the mercy of more passionate forces ever present in their friendship circle and on the Internet. Your child’s conscience needs to be something that as they grow up and mature remains deeply experienced in their gut and heart. As a parent you always need top be asking yourself, “How deeply rooted is my child’s conscience?”

Too many parents get wrapped up in keeping up with the Joneses and wanting their kid to be the great athlete, the smartest kid, the kid who wins at the science fair. In contrast, THE MOST IMPORTANT TASK is to raise a child with a Great Conscience. That is the one quality that will get them through any storm, any challenge, any temptation, any pressure.

Key fact: What your child cares about most varies according to their developmental stage: at 5 they care most about a toy, and at 15 they care most about their social status. So, your ability to ensure your FEELS guilty for misbehavior somewhat hinges on how well you help them connect how their misbehavior impairs even their ability to get WHAT THEY WANT. If your 10-year-old girl is gossiping, then a technique that should be used is discuss how that will hurt her chances of having genuine friends because she will end up having friends who gossip, even about her!

So how do you help your child develop a moral conscience? Here are some tips:

Model exemplary character every day as much as possible as a parent. You will have the greatest imprint on your child. And when you’re behavior fall short, talk with your child about what was wrong with your behavior and what you will focus on doing from now on. Apologize to your child for not having been exemplary. When you are not exemplary, walk through with them where your conscience broke down. That way, you are helping them construct and “inner world” model for how to think and act in a way that is guided by their conscience.

Raise a child in a belief system of some kind. There is a unique and irreplaceable value to having your child feel committed to a set of core beliefs that include the idea of giving to the Community and that there is something greater than you. It is interesting to watch parents who were raised with religion, who become successful in their lives, forget how religion helped them get where they are, and yet who turn their back on religion. It is ok to have doubts, but to “throw the baby out with the bath water” and disallow your child to benefit from the same positive factors that helped you succeed is stupid. If you cannot find a religion that works, then make sure you find a way to replicate all of the functional elements that religious systems offer that are so vital to developing conscience.

Make sure you have a “firm but kind” parenting style. Remember the firm part! Be consistent with your consequences, and make sure that they sting. Don’t just say go to your room. Make part of the consequence about them learning what negative ramifications their behavior has on siblings, the family, and others. One great way to Have them Don’t let your child manipulate you into giving them things.

-When your child misbehaves, make sure they not only intellectually understand all of the negative consequences of their behavior, but FEEL those consequences. Too many parents go too easy on their children. For example, if an eight-year-old is caught in a lie, have them write out 20 different ways that lying negatively affects their relationships, their social status, and their families reputation. Maybe have them write about how they would feel if their best friend told a lie about them that damaged their reputation at school. However, it is critical to not go overboard either, so calibrate your response to the seriousness of the offense.

-If your child misbehaves at school and a significant enough way, consider the importance of having them write an apology letter to whomever may have been hurt or negatively impacted by the misbehavior. Including the teacher. This makes them really stop and think, and FEEL. This makes your child recognize just how serious certain kinds of behavior can be. Make sure you have them talk about how their behavior affects other people’s feelings.

Do not and I repeat do not shield your child from the criticism of other adults. A telltale sign of a parent who is raising and overindulged child is one who cannot handle their child being criticized. The helicopter parent! Make sure you facilitate your child receiving, when it seems developmentally appropriate, direct criticism in a way that sobers them up to the unattractive reality of their behavior.

Teach children from a very young age the importance of a GENUINE apology. Key ingredients of a genuine apology include making eye contact, appropriate tone, apologizing without an excuse, and appropriate changes in interaction style with the person to whom the apology has been made. Make sure apologies are a regular part of how your child functions.

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Meet Doctor Brunner

Dr. Thomas (Tom) Brunner is a Tucson based psychologist and published expert who has a 20 year track record of clinical excellence, scientific research, teaching, publications, awards and podcast interviews.  He is the senior author of a psychological measure adapted into 14 languages worldwide, and has written over 250 blogs, many of them have gone viral.  He is revolutionizing the field of career guidance with his fresh and trademarked approach that is spreading like wildfire. Sign up here to be notified of soon to be published book, Find Your Real Me: Career Guidance Making You Truly Free.