You can talk and talk, but some things children just have to learn on their own. You have talked with your seven-year-old about how much it hurts to be teased and have encouraged her not to get involved in such behavior. Still, she tells you about a child at school who was being teased by the other children because of his difficulty with school work and not getting very good grades. your seven-year-old has already learned a little bit about the give and take of teasing and making fun, but has had no experience with being teased as a result of having difficulty with particular tasks or activities or as a result of not performing very well. She somewhat understands why you disapprove of the children teasing the boy, but does not have much empathy for him and for his situation. Her turn comes one day, though. She is the last one in her group to master “walking the dog” on her skateboard. “Everyone, everyone in the whole wide world can walk the dog but me,” she sobs. With a cruelty only seven-year- olds and other young children can muster, her friends are merciless in their teasing. “Even a hog can walk the dog – dummy, dummy, dumber than a hog!” Her experience gives new and personal meaning to the value of refraining from teasing. She now can feel how much it hurts.
The development of values through experience begins with your infant. Very quickly, your infant experiences the fact being hungry is less good than not being hungry. Similarly, your infant learns it is better to be warm than cold, better to be free from pain than in pain, better to have relationships with people than to be ignored, better to have things to do than to be bored. Primary values begin to develop through the experiences of infancy.
Values begin to compound and expand for your toddler. Your toddler is taught to restrain aggressive or destructive impulses, told living areas should be kept neat, made to take baths and keep clean, encouraged to eat a variety of foods, and taught many other values. Much of your toddler’s value development comes through experience — spontaneous or contrived by you. For example, your toddler learns the value of taking care of his things after a few of them are broken, damaged, or lost as a result of his carelessness. When he has to deal with not having the toy or other object, has to deal with its not working or functioning properly, or has to deal with your reactions to the object being broken or lost, his experience begins to tell him it is a good idea to take better care of his things.
At other times, you intentionally contrive situations in which your toddler has experiences related to the development of specific values. For instance, you notice your toddler seems to believe she can do everything herself and needs no help from anyone. You want her to learn the value of accepting help and advice from others, or at least considering the advice of others. It is getting to the point where she becomes very upset whenever anyone tries to help her with something. You decide to pick a few situations in which you simply offer to help or offer advice but totally refrain from further interference if your child refuses the advice. She receives a new toy needing assembled, you offer to help. When your toddler becomes annoyed, you say, “Fine, do it yourself.” When after a while your toddler cannot put the toy together, she comes to you, asking for help. You say, “No, I am not helping now. Now you have to do it yourself.”
Your preschooler consistently refuses to play cooperatively with neighborhood children. At first, you try to intervene when his behavior gets too far out of hand or when the other children do not want to play with him. You decide, though, the value of social cooperation needs to be learned through experience by your preschooler, so you decide to simply stay out of it. After a while your preschooler gets the message other children do not want to play with him when he is too rough, always has to be first, pouts or has temper tantrums if things do not go his way, or when he insists other children play his games and never their games. Also, the other children learn a value of their own through this experience. They learned being cooperative, letting other people have their way, and generally capitulating to the will of others all have their limits.
Through life experience, your grade schooler learns about such values as completing tasks on time, doing jobs in an orderly way, being polite, being willing to help and to ask for help, taking care of one’s things and respecting the property of others, being honest and reliable. Your eleven-year-old becomes very nasty and unpleasant with one of her friends, joining in with the other children who are teasing the friend. The friend has a party and does not invite your eleven-year-old. What value does the experience teach? If you are not reasonably nice to other people, they are not very likely to be nice back.
For your adolescent, experience can be more harsh and exciting, and values more intense and entrenched. Your adolescent may become increasingly irresponsible, despite your pleading and counseling. Parents sometimes protect their adolescents from the negative consequences of their actions, by talking school officials out of taking negative measures, by “buying” their way out of trouble. Yes, this occasionally works. More often, however, the adolescents behavior only continues, but in a new place or under new circumstances. What should you do?
The first time something really bad happens, talk with your adolescent, let her know what the consequences might have been, try to be sure the negative consequences are not too extreme, and be sure she experiences some negative discipline. If the problem persists, however, back off and let the consequences come as they may. To further protect your child only postpones the inevitable. Continuing to merely protect your child and reiterate your values is very unlikely to help.
Some values can only be learned through experience, while other values are reinforced and solidified through experience. It is tempting to protect your children or to shelter them from things that are unpleasant or uncomfortable for them. The difficulty is some values cannot be learned if you are overprotective. Your children sometimes have to have bad experiences, unpleasant things happen, and experience the negative consequences of their behavior. To be too protective postpones this necessary learning process.
Some children are strong-willed and self-determined, qualities that potentially serve them well. At the same time, your very strong-willed, self-determined children have their problems. They seem to have to learn everything the hard way. They frequently disregard your advice and deal with the world on their own terms. You only need become concerned if they do not seem to learn from their experiences. If this is so, suspect a serious problem and seek professional advice. Even when your child is more strong willed and self-determined than others, avoid labeling your child in this way as an excuse or reason for misbehavior. Just as he seems to need to try everything once, he also has a higher than usual need for negative discipline. Frequently, it is your responsibility to be sure the negative consequences or unpleasant effects do occur, whether spontaneously in your child’s world or imposed on your child by you.