Parents can help their children develop a sense of moral goodness with an accompanying feeling of obligation to do the right thing. The formation of “conscience” is promoted when parents nurture awareness and the development of feelings. Conscience is also promoted when parents help children understand that two people may feel differently about a situation, and when they reason with their children in a way that helps them connect their behavior with its effect on others. For example, a parent might respond to a brewing situation between siblings by acknowledging feelings of frustration and then saying, “When you yell at your brother, he feels scared and sad. He feels that you don’t like him. Is there another way you can let him know what you are feeling and needing without yelling?”

When parents help children with their feelings while teaching them to think about the effect of their behavior on others, the child’s own logic and compassion are cultivated. When a child’s logic and compassion grow, he or she is more likely to have internalized standards for behavior, a more developed moral responsiveness, and less vulnerability to external influences.

In contrast, discipline that relies on threats of punishment or the withdrawal of love makes children feel so anxious and frightened that they simply cannot think clearly. They then have a hard time figuring out what they need to do or could do differently. These threat-type practices actually interfere with the development of empathy and prosocial responses, and children then do not internalize moral rules.

The time it takes to reason with your children and help them understand the effects of their behavior on others is worthwhile. Reasoning helps them understand why changing a hurtful behavior makes sense. By your doing so, you will help your children learn how to do the right thing and want to do the right thing.