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As a father of a three year old I am constantly thinking about what sort of person I would like our son to be when he grows up. There are, of course, lots of things I want for him but in essence I want him to be able to live a full and happy life. That said, if there was one trait I would like to engender in him that would be for him to be a caring individual. So it was with great interests that I read this article by Adam Grant, Raising a Moral Child in the NYT this weekend. (Much of what is written below is from the article which you can read in it’s entirety here. ) 

It turns out I am not alone in these thoughts. Apparently success is not the number one priority for most parents. We’re more concerned that our children are kind, compassionate and helpful. This is true around the world. Having said that, it’s not as easy to do as you’d think given the importance given to those traits. Adam Grant quotes an Israeli Study of 600 families whose parents frequently failed to raise caring offspring even though they themselves valued compassion and kindness. 

As a parent and a teacher these questions are of great interest. What is the best way to engender these traits in our children? And to what extent can we be expected to effect positive change and how? 

Studies with identical twins have suggested that our propensity for caring and giving are to a greater or lesser extent inherited. This could be as much as 50% which means, even in these rare cases where it is 50%, that there is a lot of room for nurturing. But what is the best way to do encourage kindness and thoughtfulness in children? 

Shame and guilt are strong emotions and were once thought to be synonymous. It turns out that one can be healthy the other not. (Research by June Price Tangney) Shame “is the feeling that I am a bad person,” and can make children feel small and worthless. Guilt on the other hand is the knowledge, “that I have done a bad thing.” Shame then, reflects the core of who someone is where as guilt is a negative judgement about an action and can therefore be rectified. As Adam Grant points 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.” So if we want children to care about others we need to teach them to feel guilty rather than shame when they misbehave.

What’s the most effective way to do this? 

There are a couple of techniques that have been researched and are mentioned in the article. One of which is the positive use of language to encouraging good behaviour. Indeed it turns out that praise is more effective than offering rewards. It also turns out that using nouns is more effective than verbs. Which means that it is more effective to encourage children to be “a helper” than to invite them “to help.”  Another example was, “please don’t be a cheater.” which was more effective (by 50%) when used instead of “please don’t cheat.” We don’t like our character to be tarnished by our actions and so are more likely, apparently, to choose positive behaviours. 

What then is the most effect response to bad behaviour? According to  Professor Eisenberg and David R Shaffer, “parents raise caring children by expressing disappointment and explaining why the behaviour was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation.”  This is so effective because it communicates disapproval of a behaviour not of the person. Couple that with high expectations of improvements in future behaviour and it can be a powerful behaviour modifier. 

Like so many things about small children they model their behaviour from the adults around them. An experiment with elementary school children by J Philippe Rushton illustrates that fact very clearly. The short version of which is that the children were more influenced by the teachers actions than words. 

So it seems, like intelligence, to some degree, many people have the belief that moral behaviour is a character trait. To some extent that  may well be true but more and more research assures us that a caring attitude, like improved intelligence, can be developed by parents and teachers alike.

Adam Grant is the author of “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.” He is also a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Give and Take

By Adam Grant

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