Teaching Kids Right from Wrong: It’s All About Choices

Posted October 18, 2010 by

Last year when I was in Iraq, I had this odd dream. I dreamt that my oldest daughter asked me what its like to be a mommy. In my dream, I told her that it was a lot like teaching her to swim. At first, I had to show her that she was safe in the water. Then she had to learn to float with my hands beneath her supporting her. Eventually, I had to let go and let her swim on her own.

A lot of my parenting issues revolve around choices. I’ll let my kids choose dinner once a week. I hope they’ll choose grilled chicken with brown rice and veggies but what I usually get is mac & cheese or breakfast for dinner. But, I also teach them that they have the ability to make choices and when they’re not around me, they have to make all kinds of choices for themselves.

This is especially true for my 5 year old, who started 1st grade this year. She has to make choices about how to handle kids that are bothering her in school. She has to decide whether she’s going to do her chores. She has to decide if she’s going to eat the fruit I send in for snack or if she’s going to trade for some other kids’ snack pack. But because I’ve talked to her about choices, she knows that she is responsible for making them.

Last night, I told both children that if they continued to get out of bed, they were going to lose a dollar (they’re both doing chores and saving up for a specific toy, which is another post entirely). Neither ended up losing said dollar but in the morning, both dollars were gone. I asked my oldest if she took her sister’s and she denied it, even after I told her I was going to check her piggy bank. Sure enough, there were two dollar bills sitting on top. I asked her why she lied and she just shrugged, refusing to meet my eyes. So I told her as punishment for lying, she lost both dollars.

Remarkably, she didn’t freak out (and let me tell you, this is a MAJOR accomplishment). I explained to her that she had made the choice to lie rather than tell the truth and there were consequences. Instead of just having to give her sister back her dollar, she lost both. Given that there was no major meltdown, I’m not sure what lesson she took away from it. I’m hoping that she took away that it’s better to tell the truth, but I’m not that optimistic.

I’ll just be happy if she realizes that her choice dictated my reaction and makes the correlation between her choices and things that happen to her down the road. I’m hoping that by teaching my daughters about choice, they will always look at a situation and consider their options, no matter what the situation is. Because when I hear adults say “I didn’t have a choice,” many times I believe they didn’t want to choose between two bad options.

I don’t know if teaching my children about choice is a good thing or if it will backfire down the road. What I do know is that for now, I talk about the good choice and the bad choice and help them to see the difference. Maybe, in doing that, I’m teaching my daughter to swim without my hand beneath her belly.


Jessica Scott is an active duty army officer, one half of a dual military couple and full-time mom. She squeezes out time to write late at night or on her lunch breaks, such as they are. She blogged her way through Iraq in 2009 and you can read about her journey at Jessicascott.net. She is the mother of Mia(3) and Victoria(5) and is blessed to have good kids who've struggled through a rough time as military kids.

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  1. Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor (Edit) Report

    Dear tammie:

    Your child is doing well at school—is “never disrespectful and gets along well with others.” You also write that, “The kids and parents love him.” This is really good news. Getting off to school or getting onto the school bus can be a very stressful—for the whole family—not just the kids. Ask yourself if there is a way to change how you interact with your son that might be helpful for him in these situations. One way you might help him is to be sure you’re staying as calm as you can under these pressures, because kids react to our increased stress by increasing their own. Experiencing a lot of stress can really diminish our ability to think of what we need to do next and our ability to control our emotions. Try coaching him as calmly as you can when he appears to be getting really upset. Tell him to take a few, deep calming breaths. Let him know that, “It can be hard to take turns, but I know you can do it. I’ve seen you do it before.” By reminding him that he has been able to do this before, you’re helping him to learn to eventually say these types of positive statements to himself. When you’re not around to coach him to calm down, he can use this ‘self-talk’ and the deep breathing when he begins to feel stressed.

  2. tammie (Edit) Report

    I would love to ask a question, but not sure where to post the question. I realize this is for a comment. BUT i will go ahead hopefully someone will respond.
    I have an 8 1/2 year old boy. He seems to be having a problem with being in control with who is first. Whether it be a game, standing in line at the bus stop. Definitely has always hated losing, especially with playing board games. There are times he seems to be better about it, but lately he is getting back into thats not fair phase. At the bus stop this morning he started again. There are 10 children who get on the bus and everyone wants a turn getting on first. That was working, until I couldnt remember who was last and 5 kids were saying they were last, so I just said will we get on by seat numbers everyday. That was fine for him until his bus number got changed and that put him back 5 instead of 2. He emotionally gets upset and says things like I just want to go home and not talk today. In other instances his teacher says he is a strong child who gets along well with others. Never treats anyone disrespectfully. The kids and parents love him. But on home level He seems to break down. What should I do? Please help

  3. Mother On The Go (Edit) Report

    I really liked your blog. As a mother of 02 kids, Ananya is 5 and Adwait is 3, i believe in teaching right and teaching young. Me and the children always have a healthy discusssion about choices and choosing the right out it. Sometimes they are the one holding the torch for me when the decison becomes tough and confusing.
    No your decison will never backfire, the process of making the right choice will stand them in good stead, as they will be tempted to pause and consider before they become rash.

  4. Daniel (Edit) Report


    I completely agree. I have a handful of young children and it really is a battle to balance between helping them learn to make their own (and the right) decisions, and to make sure that they are making those decisions. But, I think it’s all worth it in the end. I did want to share an article with you that relates to this: basically, what happens to teens when parents don’t help them learn to make the right choices, or allow them to make all the choices too early and without the right tools. So, for what it’s worth, here it is: http://blog.safemart.com/posts/its-probably-our-fault-a-parents-guide-to-teen-safety.html. Thanks again for your great post.

  5. Taliasmom (Edit) Report

    I often anguish over the issue that my youngest being 9yrs old will consistantly choose the wrong. I feel like it has been 8 straight years of teaching right from wrong and she misses out on all kinds of other info. This is because we are stuck on wrong. Last night she was at a 3 yr old birthday party. When the presents were being open she began to help, not sit down and initiate him doing the wrong thing. I requested her to sit, sit back, let him do it. After trying repeatedly to get her to mind and enjoy the party (and let others enjoy themselves) she became rude. I took her out of the room and explained the process, then took her home. I love your post. So many times I can (and don’t) offer her the chance to make the choice. You can sit down like I asked you to or we will need to leave.



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