Bringing up a caring child
While most parents want their children to be successful adults, Moms and Dads are also concerned about their kids becoming kind, compassionate and helpful. Indeed, most social surveys across the world show that parents want their kids to be caring and kind over material achievement.
Like most parents, I was very concerned with my children’s ethical development. I wanted them to be kindhearted towards others, honest, and have a strong sense of social responsibility. But how do we accomplish this “hard to measure” goal? When my youngest daughter was in middle school, both my wife and I noticed that she had become very materialistic and selfish. After much debate and discussion, we decided to move from our comfortable suburban community to the city of Seattle, largely because we wanted her to have greater exposure to kids from different socio-economic backgrounds. We wanted her to understand that with privilege comes responsibility. We moved when she was in 8th grade. Everyone thought we were out of our minds! But we wanted her to experience the world differently. It was a risky experiment. But one we felt passionate about.
Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at Wharton School, the author of “Give and Take: Why Helping others drives our success” (an interesting read) wrote an article in the New York Times (April 13, 2014) on this subject of raising moral children.
Dr. Grant noted that studies of identical twins, who reared apart, suggest that close to half of our likelihood of being kind and caring comes from our gene pool (nature). But that leaves a lot of room for nurture too. Some research suggests that praise, rather than rewards are more effective when it comes to moral improvement. Rewarding moral behavior may reinforce the need for a “carrot” to do the right thing. We want children to make good choices because they feel that it is the right thing to do, not because they will receive a reward.
But what kind of praise is helpful? Today, it’s in vogue to praise specific behaviors in the hopes that kids will repeat the desired conduct. But studies in child development show just the opposite. It’s more important to praise the child’s character than the specific positive behavior. When a youngster is told, “you are a helpful person” rather than praising a helpful action, kids are more likely to be generous in the future. Apparently believing that you are a good person generalizes into good behavior.
Other research suggests that when it comes to moral action, using nouns are more effective than verbs. When kids are asked to be “a helper” rather than “to help,” they are more accommodating! Similarly, kids who were told not to be “a cheater” were less likely to cheat than if they were asked not “to cheat”. There is something about self-image that motivates positive or negative action.
But the opposite is true when children err. When kids feel shame about a mistake, they feel that they are bad. When they feel guilt, they feel that something they did was wrong. Dr. Grant notes, “Shame is a negative judgment about the core self, which is devastating: Shame makes children feel small and worthless, and they respond by lashing out…When children feel guilt, they tend to experience remorse and regret, empathize with the person they have harmed, and aim to make it right”.
This makes sense to me. Feeling that you are a good, kind person creates a positive self-image that is actualized in deeds of loving kindness. When parents reinforce a child’s value as a human being, kids feel more worthwhile.
Some years after we moved to Seattle, and after my daughter went to college; she went to work in the South Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States. Today, she is Nurse Practitioner working in a community health center that serves the poor. She told us— “One of the best decisions you made in my life was to move to the city. I met kids from all different backgrounds, and I learned how important it was to make a contribution to the world”.
This was music to our parental ears.