Why should I? Stage 3: to hear “good boy/girl”

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

Stage 3: social conformity orientation. Primary school onwards

  • In primary school the child is increasingly exposed to and aware of the various groups they belong to. The motivation for moral behaviour now moves beyond personal self-interest, and involves relationships with others and what others think of them…the wish to be regarded by the group or people in the group as a “good boy” or “good girl”.  Their moral concern is still self-focused in that they want the group to think well of them, but at least they are looking beyond themselves and trying to imagine what others think and want. They are not as yet concerned with the health of the group and their role in supporting that health (that’s the next stage).  
  • So a good action is one that gains approval from and belonging with others by meeting the social expectations of the group.

From age five onwards a child is increasingly having to negotiate relationships with other people.  What the right thing to do regarding other people becomes increasingly complicated over time.   Think about the vast difference between what makes a good friend in grade one as opposed to year nine.

If a child remains in stage 1 or 2 morality (self-interest), then they are heading for a life of difficult and disappointing relationships. To have good relationships, you need to be aware of what you want, but also consider and be motivated by what the other person wants, and ultimately working out “what is good for us”. Few healthy people will remain connected with a friend who treats them badly.

When discussing family rules and values, it is helpful if it can be done as a whole family to decrease the focus on “me/you” and increase the focus on “us”.  Primary school children will naturally tend to talk about themselves and their own wishes, because that is the stage they are at.  The beauty of a family approach to creating rules is that when a child says, “I want…”, you can respond, “That’s great, I’m so glad you know what you want…but this is about the family.  What do you want for us?”  Effectively, you are confronting them in a gentle but firm way that they are one of many, and they are not special. Just because you want something doesn’t mean you get it.  To get good things, you need to consider others and act in ways in which the group and particularly your parents think well of you.  “Good girl / boy” is the reward and results in the experience of being well thought of.

It is from this reality that comes the commonly heard recommendation of “finding your child being good”.  In early primary school it helps if you look for good behaviour and comment on it.  Not in a special way, just in a cool “no big deal” way.  If you overly praise their behaviour, that may reinforce the feeling that they are actually special…and one of the key tasks of growing up is accepting that they are good enough, but not special.

When discussing family rules, you should not just note when the rules are broken, but also when they were met and offer praise for this.  Whatever variant of “good girl/boy” you use (“thank you” is another way of saying “you did good”), it is important for your child to hear this said to them, and for it to be said about others in the family.  They are not special, but they are great.  If people behave in ways that please the family or group, they should be encouraged for this in these early years.  You want to develop an atmosphere in your family of love, fun and gratefulness, so that your children want you to think well of them.  

The language we use is important.  When things get too personal, the word “I” will naturally be used more.  Staying cool, calm and connected helps when dealing with good and bad behaviour.  Every time you can use the word “us” when working out a problem it increases your child’s moral maturity, as it is encouraging them to consider not just their own self-interest, but others in the group and their relationships with them. And you are modelling that your concern is less about being annoyed personally by their behaviour (though this is probably true as well), but by what helps the family group run better: it’s not personal, just business.