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What Is An “Inner Compass?" Shouldn't I Give My Child Good Habits?

Hi Kathy,

My name is Madeleine. I have an 8 year old and a 5 year old. I saw you mention the idea of an “inner compass” in an earlier post, and I’m curious about that. It seems to me that our job as parents is to help our children develop good habits, like sleeping at regular times, eating healthy food, getting their homework done, taking care of chores, etc. But I also see that when I tell my kids what to do and they don’t want to do it, we fight. I do want them to be internally motivated to do things, but how can they be internally motivated if they don’t already have good habits? I don’t get it. What do you mean by “inner compass” and how do kids get one?



Dear Madeleine,

Thank you so much for picking up on this question of how we help our children develop their own “inner compass.” I really like how you put it, wanting them to be “internally motivated.” In different words, I’d say that I want to help children develop a deep sense of self-awareness, so that they can feel, from the inside, what helps them thrive and what makes them feel bad, physically or emotionally. Getting to this self awareness might entail making some choices that the parents don’t like. But such “mistakes” are necessary for developing self-awareness. And self-awareness, in the long term, leads to their making choices that are good for them.

When, on the contrary, parents make the rules about what and when kids should eat, when to sleep, what to wear, how tidy their rooms must be, etc., then children don’t have the opportunity to reference their own inner signals about these things. Instead, they reference themselves around the parents’ desires.

Some children, the ones we think of as “easy,” do what their parents tell them most of the time. The kids we think of as “difficult” or “obstinate” or “strong-willed,” tend to argue or reject their parents’ wishes. Most of us tend to prefer the more compliant kids — they are, by definition, easier — but either way, children whose parents tell them what to do and not to do don’t have as much of a chance to practice their own self-awareness and their own capacity to choose. They are busy resisting or complying with their parents’ choices.

I can hear many readers saying, “But if we let the children choose, they will make really bad choices!”

I want to emphasize that if immediate safety is at risk, the parents must choose. It’s not okay to let children explore the liquor cabinet (in fact, it should be locked and out of sight). It’s not okay to let kids play in a busy street. More than that: Parents need to create an environment where it is safe and healthy for children to explore. We create age-appropriate bubbles of safety, including keeping addictive substances out of reach. For infants and toddlers, this means we cover the electrical outlets and of course keep any choking-risk toys out of reach. For children of all ages, it means we think very carefully about when and how screens are used and what access they have to sugar-based foods and drinks. There are plenty of things where the notion of “inner compass” does not apply, because it is too dangerous to let children freely explore.

But there are many, many choices that impact their own bodies that kids can make without much risk, and I say, when this is the case: let the children choose. We know that Marie (the two year old described in the previous column), will probably choose not to wear her jacket when it is cold outside. If her mom lets her experience the cold, without arguing, several times, Marie will probably come around to preferring, of her own volition, to wear her jacket. This will have been a victory for Marie’s inner compass. It will mean that when Marie is older, she won’t have to rebel by not wearing her jacket when she needs it. There will be nothing to rebel against. Instead, there will be Marie’s own voice inside her, telling her, “I feel better when I wear my jacket in the cold.” This is a significant indicator of good health, perhaps more than it even appears.

In general, I recommend asking these questions: Is there an immediate safety concern or a potential addiction? Or is more that I am trying to “instill” good habits? If the latter, could I let the child have more choice, so that he/she can develop self-awareness of the impact of her choices, which over the long term means that she will be able to trust her own inner compass?

With warm wishes for a strong inner compass for parents and kids alike,


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