Raising a moral child

Filed in Family by on April 30, 2014 2 Comments

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Adam Grant discusses how parents can help the moral development of their children, particularly in the area of becoming a ‘caring’ person.

Although some parents live vicariously through their children’s accomplishments, success is not the No. 1 priority for most parents. We’re much more concerned about our children becoming kind, compassionate and helpful. Surveys reveal that in the United States, parents from European, Asian, Hispanic and African ethnic groups all place far greater importance on caring than achievement. These patterns hold around the world: When people in 50 countries were asked to report their guiding principles in life, the value that mattered most was not achievement, but caring.

He looks through the results of various studies, and explores how to encourage good behaviour through a focus on character development, the difference between shame and guilt, and teaching children how to deal with bad behaviour.

As powerful as it is to criticize bad behavior and praise good character, raising a generous child involves more than waiting for opportunities to react to the actions of our children. As parents, we want to be proactive in communicating our values to our children. Yet many of us do this the wrong way.

He goes on to state that actions speak louder than words, and that in some cases, words can actually undermine the effectiveness of actions.

The message from this research is loud and clear: If you don’t model generosity, preaching it may not help in the short run, and in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.

This isn’t intuitive, but it’s backed up by some evidence.

In a classic experiment, the psychologist J. Philippe Rushton gave 140 elementary- and middle-school-age children tokens for winning a game, which they could keep entirely or donate some to a child in poverty. They first watched a teacher figure play the game either selfishly or generously, and then preach to them the value of taking, giving or neither. The adult’s influence was significant: Actions spoke louder than words. When the adult behaved selfishly, children followed suit. The words didn’t make much difference — children gave fewer tokens after observing the adult’s selfish actions, regardless of whether the adult verbally advocated selfishness or generosity. When the adult acted generously, students gave the same amount whether generosity was preached or not — they donated 85 percent more than the norm in both cases. When the adult preached selfishness, even after the adult acted generously, the students still gave 49 percent more than the norm. Children learn generosity not by listening to what their role models say, but by observing what they do.

To test whether these role-modeling effects persisted over time, two months later researchers observed the children playing the game again. Would the modeling or the preaching influence whether the children gave — and would they even remember it from two months earlier?

The most generous children were those who watched the teacher give but not say anything. Two months later, these children were 31 percent more generous than those who observed the same behavior but also heard it preached. The message from this research is loud and clear: If you don’t model generosity, preaching it may not help in the short run, and in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.

People often believe that character causes action, but when it comes to producing moral children, we need to remember that action also shapes character. As the psychologist Karl Weick is fond of asking, “How can I know who I am until I see what I do? How can I know what I value until I see where I walk?”

I’d be interested to hear how this research ties in with your own experience.

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Fr Jerome Santamaria

About the Author ()

Fr Jerome Santamaria is a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia.

Comments (2)

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  1. Tonia says:

    I think there’s both a nature and a nurture element to generosity, and perhaps birth order plays a part.

    Our older son was always reluctant to share a chip or a sweet with us, while you only had to ask the younger one (even at 2) and he’d get a plate and give you half. They’re still the same at 11 and 13.

  2. Ben Santamaria says:

    As Jerome’s little brother, Tonia, I concur.

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