Lying and stealing.
Minor transgressions can be expected of every pre-school child; if nothing more, they indicate his desire to learn exactly what penalty will be imposed if he violates your rules. The three- or four-year-old probably cannot understand that all of us must obey God’s laws. Later, of course, he must be taught that lying and stealing are sins because they violate that law.
It takes a wise parent to understand the difference between a young child’s imagination and his lying. When children learn that speech has the power to affect others, they often make up stories simply to notice the effect upon adults. In such cases, you probably need not do any more than indicate your mild disbelief. Untruths affecting others are a different matter, however. If your child lies deliberately about a serious matter, you should point out to him that his action is sinful; that it harms those about whom he lies; and that it harms him by causing people to lose confidence in him.
The best way to discourage lying is to encourage truthfulness. The child who admits the truth and is willing to face the consequences of his actions displays a fine sense of maturity and deserves to be complimented for it. But do not carry your commendation for truthfulness to extremes, as though it were a novelty. Whenever one little boy did something wrong, he ran to his father and confessed. The father invariably praised him for his honesty and neglected to punish him for his actions “because he told the truth.” The youngster, now sixteen, is the most truthful boy in town–and the greatest mischief-maker. He firmly believes that simply telling the truth absolves him of all blame for his conduct.
Children also do a certain amount of stealing. Vinnie, three years old, sees a toy which Billy is playing with and takes it as soon as he can so that he too may enjoy it. He is simply doing what comes naturally; he wants the toy and sees no reason why he should not have it. Obviously, he commits no sin. He must be taught in a calm way, however, that he must not take things which do not belong to him.
You can strengthen your child’s resistance against the impulse to steal by strengthening his own sense of possessiveness. If you treat his possessions with respect, making it plain to him that you would not use them without his permission, you make it easier for him to comprehend his obligations to others.
Probably all children pass through a “stealing” stage during which you can impress upon them the importance of not taking what belongs to others. This tendency to pilfer others’ possessions usually decreases and ceases to be a source of difficulty by the time the child is seven.
If he continues to steal after that, it may indicate that some of his strong and legitimate desires are not satisfied. For instance, the parents of a ten-year-old boy habitually compared him unfavorably with others of his age. He had a compelling urge to show that he was their superior, and he began to steal watches and other jewelry and to flaunt them before his classmates as presents he had received from his rich, admiring relatives. Other youngsters may steal to relieve their boredom: boys who raid a fruitstand may simply crave excitement. If your child steals after he has reached the age of reason and is morally responsible for his actions, do not minimize the fact that he has sinned; but also seek to determine whether any psychological reason may have been important in causing him to act as he does. A child should always be required to pay for objects he has stolen, even if he must work on Saturdays or forgo his allowance for months to do so.
Early sex experimentation.
A child cannot commit sin until he reaches the age of reason. It follows that no moral guilt is associated with his early sex experimentation. Some parents might mistakenly regard as masturbation a baby’s holding of his sex organ, but it is as natural for him to display this interest as it is for him to examine his hands, feet or other parts of his body. He may experience pleasure when he touches his genitals, but this act has no greater moral significance than has sucking his fingers.
The normal child generally discontinues his sex experimentation when he finds other interests–and you can help him do so by giving him rattles to hold or toys to play with. However, if he continues to touch his genitals habitually after he begins to walk, he may be developing a pattern which will make masturbation more difficult to resist in later years. You should gently and casually remove his hands each time you see him doing so. It is best to discourage this conduct in a matter-of-fact way, much as you might prevent him from picking his nose. Do not overemphasize its importance; otherwise you may accentuate his interest instead of changing it.
Sometimes two- and three-year-olds display a curiosity about the organs of the other sex. This interest also is natural and no evil intent is involved, but it is not proper and should not be permitted. Likewise, the little girl who lifts her dress in company is not guilty of any moral wrong, but she should be told not to do it. By the time boys and girls are about three years old, their training in modesty should begin. They should learn that certain parts of the body must not be exposed before anyone except their parents.
A young child usually can be easily trained to be modest if his mother will tell him in a calm, unemotional way what is expected of him. Much difficulty with children in this regard results from the inability or unwillingness of parents to discuss the process of elimination without a sense of shame, and without giving it an undue importance in the child’s mind.
Sex experimentation usually ceases well before the child reaches the age of reason, and sex does not emerge as a serious problem in his development until adolescence. If your child continues to touch his genitals habitually after the age of six or seven, perhaps he seeks the pleasure which he derives from the action to compensate for some sense of insecurity. If your efforts to stop the practice fail, you should discuss his case with a doctor.
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