“They Need To Know It’s Wrong!”

boy on floor feeling bad

“But if I don’t punish them or give them some sort of consequence or respond in some strong way, how will they learn that [hitting, swearing, breaking things, etc] is wrong? They need to know that it’s not okay! Isn’t that my job, to make it clear to them that the behavior is not okay? If I just let them do it and I don’t tell them it’s wrong, they’ll think that it’s acceptable!”

Listen up.

This is a myth.

I have worked with young children and their families for more than 40 years. I have worked in hundreds of preschool classrooms and schools and with thousands of young children.
Tomorrow morning, I (or you!) could walk into ANY preschool classroom, anywhere, and ask ANY 3 year old or 4 year old or 5 year old if hitting or breaking things or swearing is okay, and I can say with utter certainty that 99.9% of them would clearly and definitively say no.
THEY ALREADY KNOW IT’S NOT OKAY. The thing that you’re absolutely certain that you HAVE to tell them or impress upon them? They. Already. Know.
This is one of the greatest myths of life and work with young children. So many of us get caught up in the trap that says that if they know it’s wrong, they won’t do it. That’s not how behavior works and it’s not how development works. Children behave “badly” when they FEEL badly.  They have immature impulse control and emotional regulation, and regardless of what they know, when they are upset or feeling inscure or needing to test boundaries, they use the only tools they have in that moment.  Young children do not stop and pause in the middle of an intense emotion or conflict and and plan and consider and say to themselves “Hmm.  I’m feeling upset, but I know that hitting is not okay, I should try something else.”  Heck, even adults don’t do that.

There are lots and lots of reasons why punishments and “consequences” (which is usually a euphemism for punishment) don’t work and aren’t a good choice.  Whole bunches of reasons.  This is just one of them. 

The child is having a problem.  The punishment or consequence does not help them solve that problem, either now (since it’s already over) or in the future (because young children don’t premeditate.)  It does not teach them or help them to do it differently next time.  It just makes us feel better because we “did something.” Sorry, but that seems like a pretty crappy reason to do something.

parallel tracks memeFor young children (and sometimes older children, and what the hell, sometimes for adults!), what we know and what we do frequently have little to no relationship to one another.  We all know what the “right thing to do” is, and very few of us always do it.    They are on parallel tracks.  Emotion (especially when accompanied by poor impulse control) and logic/understanding do not cross paths, especially when we are upset.

No.  You don’t need to tell them that it’s not okay.  No, they don’t “need to learn that it’s not okay.”  No. You don’t need to make decisions based on fear that you are sending a message that destructive or hurtful behavior is okay.

They already know.

They’re struggling.  Offer them compassion.  Ask them questions, with empathy and curiosity.  Be there.  Hold space for them.  Find out what’s really going on for them, by observing, by connecting, by listening much harder than you talk.

This is our task.  To get underneath the behavior.  To shift our lens from thinking about how to control behavior and “teaching them” to remembering that they’re doing the best they can with the skills and development that they have at their disposal.

Let the myth die with you.

6 thoughts on ““They Need To Know It’s Wrong!”

  1. This is great. I would find it so helpful to see a sample conversation, if possible. A hypothetical. Thank you for this post!

  2. This all makes great sense and I couldn’t agree more. How does one set limits for a 3 and a half year old who likes to rule the roost? I am a babysitting grandma and I have been lax in this regard and am wondering how to reestablish that I make the rules. I’m a great fan of Janet Lansbury and your work is so similar to hers but I don’t recall seeing this aspect of development described so clearly in “No Bad Kids”. Have you any advice for me? Is this just a blog or is there a book?

  3. When you say we don’t need to tell them it’s wrong,
    because ‘they already know it’s wrong’, how do they know if we’ve never told them?
    Should we have previously told them it’s wrong in different circumstances (ie, when we witness other people do it, or just randomly in conversation etc). Or is it an innate thing that they just work out on their own?

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