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As they enter their pre-school and kindergarten years (and continue into their early grade school years), conscience begins to develop in our little ones. In other words, they begin to build their small inner voice that helps them to distinguish between right and wrong—and how they impact others. It starts to feel a little different now when they don’t tell the truth or they hurt the feelings of a friend. 

Until around age four, we serve as the conscience for our kids. It sounds like: Always tell the truth. It’s your brother’s turn with the new toy.

We get so comfortable with this role that it becomes “too automatic.” It’s time to start cultivating their inner voice as they become more independent. It’s an important transition for both child and parent as the inner voice becomes a new pathway for bringing out the goodness that lies within. 

Here are the three ways we can cultivate a child’s inner voice:

Introduce the idea that we all have an inner voice. 

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 With my kids, I simply said there is a “small” voice inside you . . . a voice that only you can hear. Expect a puzzled look and be prepared with some personal examples. An example I shared was how I came across a lost cat when I was coming home from school. I didn’t want to take on the burden of finding its owner—but my small voice wouldn’t let me off the hook. It kept saying: This little cat needs your help!

Challenges and little ethical dilemmas will constantly arise for your child—and each one creates an opportunity to have them connect with their inner voice. For example: “I don’t want to go to Sarah’s birthday.”

One option for the parent is to share their own rationale for going: “You don’t want to hurt Sarah’s feelings.”Or, the heavy-handed approach: “You’re going and that’s it!” The more powerful alternative is for parents to trigger some reflection and then give them some space to think about it. It can be framed in a simple question: “What does your small voice say you should do?”

This single question also allows parents to create a more nurturing relationship with their child—creating more opportunities for discussion (rather than telling and correcting). 

Model it. 

It is important to remember that as parents we play the most dominant role in influencing our kids. The process begins with the initial attachment that is formed between parents and their newborns. A child who doesn’t feel consistently loved and cared for by their parents will have challenges in developing relationships at a later age. 

As your kids approach their pre-school years, this initial attachment phase grows into an identification phase. It starts with the child beginning to imitate their parents—copying their gestures and behaviors. 

If dad always wears a baseball cap, they will want to wear one too! The identification process continues as the child experiences how the parent relates to those around them. For example, if parents are attentive, loving and nurturing, the child will adopt these characteristics as the way in which they should relate to others. Conversely, if the parents are impulsive, negative and impatient…well, you get the point. 

The bottom line is that how you relate to your child (and others) will have a profound effect on how they will relate to others.So, be on guard as you move through the day. Your impatience with the grocery store clerk and others will eventually start to show up in how your kids relate to their friends. 

Make it routine. 

To bring their inner voice to life, make it a routine inquiry. It’s easy to see how all the little dilemmas they face can be opportunities to develop their capacity to reflect and do the right thing. They say: “I don’t want to go to grandma’s, it’s no fun there.” Your response: “We can try to make it more fun—and seeing you always makes your grandma happy. What does your small voice say you should do?”

Intuitively, they will know that this question is intended to bring out their better self. It also puts the choice back into their hands—as opposed to the guilt-induced statement: “She’ll be sad if you don’t come.”

Whether it is at the dinner table or the car ride home from school, these can be great opportunities to share how our own small voice “nudged us” during the day (e.g., “I was impatient with your mom this morning, so I sent her a text as soon as I got to work”).  Even today, as we try to make good choices in a challenging world, my adult kids will still ask me: What does your small voice say, dad?