Helping Kids Develop Their Conscience

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Life is a series of choices, some planned and some not. Some are made from the mind after much thought and reasoning, while others are made impulsively from the heart or what “feels right.” Some turn out well and impact our lives for better, and some we regret.

Are your kids ready to make the right choices, both now and in the future? When they’re out of your supervision, and their friends make wrong choices, will your child choose more wisely or follow along?

In my 28-year career at Russell Investments, I had the privilege of working for an inspiring leader, George Russell, who could distill the complex down to simple but profound truisms. One of them was, “If you’re not sure whether to do something, imagine it as the headline in tomorrow’s newspaper.” Wow! How’s that for clarity and common sense?

In a cultural climate where “values” are often measured on a slippery scale of personal taste, convenience, self-gratification, and “tolerance,” kids can get into real trouble when they dismiss the caution signals. That’s why helping young people identify their values and strengthen their conscience is so important. It’s more than important…it’s crucial to their personal brand!

This is what some refer to as “conscience training.” In times of growing independence, freedom, and opportunities, young people are increasingly faced with risky situations that require quick decisions. In some cases, for teens and young adults, one bad decision in the heat of the moment may do irreparable harm to their reputation, college, career, personal health and safety, or relationships—and derail their future plans and dreams.

That’s why having—and always listening to—that inner voice is so important in high-risk situations. Here are some ways to help set your child up for success when one of those pivotal  moments of decision occurs:

  • Have them describe their non-negotiable values. It’s important they have the vocabulary to express these. Do they have a working definition of “honesty,” “purity,” “respect,” “compassion,” “honor,” etc.? Moreover, encourage them to write down their non-negotiable values so they never forget the principles that are important to them. These values are a big part of their personal “brand.” (Use the link above to access a list of positive traits and values to share with your child. It can be a fun family exercise to have each member circle his/her top 10 and compare.)
  • Realizing that most unhealthy choices involve succumbing to peer pressure, be sure they understand their value and surround themselves with positive people and influences that have their best interests at heart.
  • Discuss potential situations that may put their reputation and integrity at risk. Remind them their best bet is to avoid high-risk situations altogether. And, if they can’t avoid them, they should at least decide in advance how they’ll react if their values are tested.

I’ve heard far too many stories of teens and young adults who didn’t heed this advice and whose futures and reputations were severely impacted because of it. Many times this could have been avoided had they asked themselves these simple questions: “How will my conscience feel in the morning? What is it telling me to do right now?”

Have you, personally, ever been in a situation where you had to make a choice that challenged your value system? Did you have the courage to go with your values over the pressure you received from others? Where age-appropriate, share these experiences with your child or teen. Maturity is about learning and recovering from our mistakes, and our own stories are often the best teachers!

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Dennis Trittin is President and CEO of LifeSmart Publishing, author of What I Wish I Knew at 18: Life Lessons for the Road Ahead and co-author of Parenting for the Launch: Raising Teens to Succeed in the Real World. With world-class leadership experience, passionate advocacy for the next generation, and acclaimed resources and speaking engagements on the topics of leadership, life skills, and parenting, Dennis inspires and equips young people and those who guide them.  You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter!