There is a very interesting article published in the New York Times recently on “Raising a Moral Child” which I wanted to highlight because raising a moral child is the top priority for most parents – myself included. What I found to be most alarming is that many families are failing to raise children with the moral qualities that we believe to be so important. So in spite of the fact that we are focussed on raising moral children, we don’t seem to be achieving it very well.
That’s pretty scary…
What are we doing wrong?
Here are the main take home points…
1. Praise is more important than rewards
Rewards potentially teach children to be kind only when a carrot is being offered. Praise teaches children that being kind is a worthy cause of its own.
2. Praise the child not the behaviour
This was really interesting since we’ve always been taught that the right way to discipline is to focus on the behaviour not the child, e.g. “What you did was not nice” as opposed to “You were not a nice boy”. Even when we offer praise on work that a child has done, we are told – praise the effort, not the child. For instance, “I can see you really worked hard on that” as opposed to “You are so good at that”.
After all that, it is stands to reason that when we want our children continue behaving in a manner that we like, we praise them for the behaviour that we want to see. Unfortunately, this is one of those exception rules – praise the effort/behaviour rather than the child EXCEPT when you’re trying to get your child to be a good person.
But wait! There’s more. In the experiment that they discovered this, it only applied to the children who were 8 years old. The 5 year olds were too young for any of it to have an effect. It didn’t matter which method you used for the 10 year olds. Yes, I know. It’s confusing.
7–10 yr olds were induced to donate some of their winnings from a game to poor children. They were then praised for their behavior (reinforcement), told they must have donated because they were helpful people (attribution), or told nothing (control). Subsequent donation, and behavior on a variety of tests of generalized altruism, was assessed. Neither reinforcement nor attribution affected the generalized altruism of 5-yr-olds, only attribution affected the generalized altruism of 8-yr-olds, and both reinforcement and attribution affected the generalized altruism of 10-yr-olds. Findings are discussed in terms of the effects of reinforcement and attribution on the child’s developing self-concept. – Developmental Psychology
3. Focus on character
If you want to correct behaviour, focus on character. For instance, rather than inviting them “to help”, encourage them to “be a helper”. Instead of telling them “not to cheat”, tell them “not to be a cheater”. This is because “when our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily towards the moral and generous choices”.
4. Focus on guilt, not shame
Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably but whether you use one or the other, they have quite opposite effects on a child. Shame expresses a negative judgement on a child’s core self which does not give them an opportunity for correction. Guilt expresses a negative judgement of an action that can be corrected with good behaviour. Children who feel shamed tend to avoid the problem they have created, whereas children who feel guilt will try to make amends. If we want our children to be caring, it is important that they feel guilt rather than shame when they misbehave.
“shame is characterised by withdrawal and hiding from judgemental others, and guilt by making amends–repairing and confessing.” – Cognition and Emotion (2008)
Two-year-old children participated in a play session, during which a mishap occurred that the children appeared to have caused. The study found:
- children who felt shamed avoided the experimenter after the mishap
- children who felt guilt owned up to the experimenter after the mishap and tried to make amends
Children are more likely to feel shame when parents express anger, withdraw love, or try to assert power through threats of punishment. Oh dear… looks like I’ve been doing this all wrong…
5. Express disappointment
So if you can’t get mad or threaten punishment, what can you do to make your child feel guilt? Expressing disappointment is apparently a very effective method because it communicates disapproval of the behaviour coupled with high expectations and the potential for improvement – “you’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing; I know you can do better.”
6. Actions speak louder than words
We hear this one time and again but I don’t think it is ever adequately expressed just how effective it is…
Children watch what you do much, much more than they listen to what you say. In fact, it doesn’t matter what you say. It only matters what you do.
In an experiment by psychologist J Philippe Rushton, it was found that children behaved generously or selfishly based on whether the adult they observed behaved generously or selfishly. It didn’t matter whether the adult was an advocate for generosity or selfishness – the words spoken by the adult did not matter. What mattered was how the adult behaved. – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1975)
The really interesting thing was that modelling behaviour while saying nothing about it was the most effective method of teaching good behaviours in the long run.
See the full article from the New York Times – Raising a Moral Child.