Say you're sorry

Building a foundation of conscience includes compassion, sympathy and empathy.

A conscience, like the ability to walk and talk, is not a skill we are born with. Such skills need the care and guidance of nurturing parents, teachers and other adults to flourish. The first three years are most important in developing a conscience. During this time, critical brain connections are forming between the limbic system, which controls basic needs and emotions and the prefrontal cortex, which controls the cognitive processing of decision-making. These connections are important for forming basic brain structures that help with interpreting social events, experiencing compassion and making decisions necessary for conscience.

Conscience is defined as an internal voice that drives us to act with kindness, respect and fairness. It is the need to “make things right.” Young children are just beginning to understand responsibility for repairing a wrong. There are all times when children make mistakes and test boundaries. Many well-meaning adults feel that the way to teach right from wrong is to have a child say, “I’m sorry!” However, young children may not feel “sorrow” over what they did. Unfortunately, the statement can become a magical pardon of the wrong deed, with no responsibility or consequences for the poor choices.

The basic foundations of conscience are compassion, sympathy and empathy.

  • Compassion is an emotional response and it means having an awareness of other people’s negative emotions, combined with the urge to help them. This can be seen on children’s faces, such as looking concerned or worried when one of their friends falls down and gets hurt.
  • Sympathy is when you put compassion into an action. One child seeing another upset when mom leaves, gives him a hug to offer comfort.
  • Empathy is an intellectual experience that includes being able to recognize emotions, thoughts or experiences of others.

How can you help nurture the development of conscience in the early years? In a recent article this month in the Journal of the Young Child, Charles A. Smith suggests:

  • Show respect for children by moving down to their eye level, and responding to their distressful emotions in a kind and comforting way. Listen to what they have to say to you, and show them you understand what they are trying to tell you.
  • Help to build caring, kindness, respect, fairness and honesty by establishing clear and simple rules that reflect caring. Hands are for hugging. Friends are for loving. Then enforce the rules with reasonable and logical consequences. Have them help care for another child they may have hurt.
  • Model forgiveness and relationship repair. When children are done with their consequence, give them a gentle hug and let them know you care about them, remind them the rules are there to keep them and others safe, and assure them they can try again.

Although having children say “I’m sorry” is a good start to building conscience in young children, adults should also concentrate on the deeper connections of nurturing the development of compassion, empathy and sympathy. To learn more about children, parenting and other family management related topics visit the Michigan State University Extension healthy relationships page.

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