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To build kids’ character, let them feel pain of their wrongdoing

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–If a child is to develop integrity, he must be allowed to feel the pain of his own wrongdoing, an educator and author said.
“We want our children to be responsible, but we don’t hold them accountable for anything that would upset them, make them feel bad or lower their self-esteem,” Madelyn Swift told children’s leaders attending a national conference in Nashville, Tenn.
Swift, president of Childright, an educational consulting and training firm, spoke on character development during the Oct. 18-21 National Preschool-Children’s Convention sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. More than 700 leaders attended the convention.
Swift said she believes that if children are never held accountable for a wrongful action — “if they never hurt enough over it” — they won’t learn to change their behavior.
“We need our children to feel pain, but we don’t want to cause it. We want to allow them the pain they earn for themselves.”
Swift gave the example of a young man who was expected to water the family’s elderly dog while his parents were away. The boy failed to provide water for the dog during a hot, dry summer, and the dog died.
The mother attempted to comfort her son by telling him the dog was old anyway and would have died soon, said Swift, who considered this the wrong method of parenting. The mother should have been there for her son and hugged him, but she should not have tried to make him feel better for his wrong actions, she said.
“Our job is to help a kid live through it, but let him learn his lessons. To deny a child his pain denies him the opportunity to develop character and conscience.”
Teaching children integrity and helping them build character requires rethinking some trusted educational paradigms, Swift said.
For example, proximity praise, or publicly praising one child displaying good behavior when the intent is to discipline another child with bad behavior, sends children the wrong message, she said.
“Proximity praise is really terrible even though most of you are taught to do it. The more directly you communicate, the more healthy it is.”
Swift suggested teachers simply ask a child who is not paying attention in class to do so rather than praising another child for exhibiting correct behavior.
“Being direct does not mean you have to be ugly. What you are doing is sending the message to the child it was intended for rather than creating ill will by being indirect.”
Another misdirected teaching tool, Swift believes, is exuberant praise for successes while making no comments about failures.
“One of the bill of goods we sell our children is that success is very important,” she said. “What we are doing here is hooking self-esteem on success and accomplishments. What happens to self-esteem when our children fail or when they make a mistake?” she asked.
She said she believes parents and teachers who treat successes and failures with equal importance are ultimately allowing children to risk failures safely.
“In a healthy child, 85 percent of his self-esteem comes from someplace else besides his successes,” she said.
Swift also believes it is wrong for parents or teachers to use the statement, “I like you, but I don’t like what you are doing.”
“This is a huge integrity conflict,” she said.
“First of all, it’s simply not true. You cannot separate the deed from the doer.”
The key to teaching children accountability is to hold them responsible for what they do, she said.
The intent of teaching children integrity, character and conscience, Swift said, is not to try and make them feel good about themselves, but to help them feel right about themselves.
“If they act wrong, they’ll feel wrong. If they act right, they’ll feel right.”
Swift is author of “Discipline for Life: Getting it Right with Children,” a study program on discipline for leaders and teachers of children. More information may be found on her Internet site at http://www.childright.com.

    About the Author

  • Terri Lackey