I actually laughed out loud several times when I read the widely circulated New York Times opinion piece called Raising a Moral Child. The author, Adam Grant, aims to share key research that will help parents use the right phrases to praise acts of kindness, model generous behaviors, and show disappointment rather than anger when a child fails to live up to moral standards.
“What does it take to be a good parent?” he asks in the opening line of the essay, the idea being that perhaps we are going to find out in the following paragraphs. And while there may be some morsels in this article that you can take away and put into practice in the home, the overwhelming message to parents is: Ignore reality. Turn away from the monstrous external pressures on all of us (parents and kids alike) to be less than moral all the time. Shrink from the obvious nightmares and focus on the minuscule private behaviors that a trained monkey could imitate.
They don’t look like trained-monkey behaviors because they’re enshrined in a New York Times opinion piece, which is written and read by highly educated people, and the author’s ideas are backed by millions of dollars’ worth of research carried out by people who have many years of training, which allows them to design and conduct experiments to discover which minuscule behaviors promote the most moral children. But they are trained-monkey behaviors, and they are an insult to parents who are not raising kids in a vacuum and to children who, being human, probably would prefer to grow up in a way that allowed them to be connected to and generous with others but who need…wait for it…more than a few prescribed parental behaviors.
Even if you grant that some of these trained-monkey behaviors are worthwhile – and perhaps they are – I’ll say more about them below, and you can decide for yourself. They cover such an infinitesimally small portion of the messages our children get about moral behaviors that you can’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the article’s premise. That is, of course, if you’re not crying… or simply succumbing to the message, which a lot of us parents end up doing because we are that desperate for help – any help. You know how it goes: You’re a parent. You’re probably pretty isolated. You may have a co-parent and even a network of support people, but a lot falls on you and you’re up against an avalanche of crap, including but not limited to manipulative advertising that targets even our babies, the absence of decent health care and decent wages, cultural messages that denigrate being brown, black, female, queer, or differently abled in any way, and that point the finger at moms for just about everything, and other little problems like the astronomical cost of day care, the school-to-prison pipeline, high-stakes testing, high rates of asthma due to air pollution, toxic stuff everywhere (which is particularly bad for growing bodies), and the teeny tiny problems that come with living in a society whose major institutions are driven by greed and theft, leaving the 1% floating above it all and the rest of us stressed out, priced out, in debt, and increasingly hungry, homeless, and hopeless.
Given this reality, how does the New York Times advise us to raise moral children? Well, in one experiment, children with lots of marbles had the opportunity to share their marbles with “poor” children. Some children who shared had their behavior praised (“It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do”). While other children who shared had their character praised, (“I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person”). A few weeks later, when these same children had another opportunity to share, the ones whose character had been praised tended to be more generous than the ones whose behavior had been praised.
The upshot: when your child gives marbles to poor children, praise her character, not her behavior. But what about when they don’t share their marbles? Researchers say it’s important not to shame your children, which can make them feel bad about themselves. Instead, you should show your disappointment. “The beauty of expressing disappointment is that it communicates disapproval of the bad behavior, coupled with high expectations and the potential for improvement: `You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better.’”
Finally, research shows that modeling good behavior is much more effective than talking about good behavior. For example, if children watch their teacher do something generous but not talk about it, they are more likely to be generous themselves.
So, parents, this is how they mess with our minds:
You walk away from reading this article feeling like it’s all on you to raise a moral child and that it’s your exact behaviors that matter. In addition to all the other parenting stress you were experiencing, you’ll now have another stress: “Wait. Was I supposed to praise character or behavior?” But, don’t worry; you can memorize your lines. You’ll get it over time. You’ll practice your disappointed face in the mirror. Make sure it’s not an angry face! Or a shame-inducing face! And remember to role-model being nice. Just make sure you don’t talk about it because, after all, that wrecks the effect.
Worse: While you’re parsing out these methods for raising a moral child and self-consciously scanning the horizon for an opportunity to role-model being nice, you will wisely block out all the messages about greed and ownership and one-upmanship that your kid is getting from about a billion other sources. After all, our culture is saturated with messages that acquisition is a moral imperative, that the way to be good is to have lots of stuff, and that the way to be the best is to have more stuff than anyone else. Greed is considered an inherent good; it is the motor that drives our entire economy, and so endless resources are spent justifying it, propping it up, and making it seem like a worthy quality rather than a depraved one. You’ll want to block out these messages because if you take them in and look at them next to the mission of raising a moral child, you might get…I don’t know…a little discouraged. And who wants to feel that? Best to do what the advice column says, and just go ahead and focus on what you can control – like your choice of phrases when praising your child and your facial expressions when scolding your child.
And, finally, worst of all: The article will distract you from the real moral problems we face, and believe me they have nothing to do with how readily our children give marbles to poor children. The real moral problems are so large, so omnipresent, so threaded into every aspect of our existence that we forget that they are human-made problems that can therefore be fixed by humans. For example, in this wealthy country where there is more than enough for everyone, why is there even such a thing as “poor” children? How is it moral that we have systems in place in our human communities that allow the result: poor children? And is it moral to spend who-knows-how-much-money making experiments about giving marbles to poor children rather than using those resources to figure out how to replace the systems that give rise to dramatic inequality?
The corporate media, handmaiden of corporate greed, does not want us to ask or answer such questions. The parenting advice they offer is just one of the ways they keep us in our place. And you’re not immune from it if you don’t read the New York Times. Start noticing the messages aimed at parents, and you’ll see that these types of directives from the experts find their way into the parenting books, the magazine columns, and the little pamphlets you pick up at the doctor’s office. They’re everywhere. They are delivered as helpful bits of wisdom, but they are in fact narrow prescriptions aimed to keep us focused on our own private micro-behaviors instead of joining with others to challenge the macro-level madness of our greed-based institutions.
Cynthia Peters is the editor of The Change Agent. She is a longtime activist and a member of City Life/Vida Urbana, and she serves on the board of a youth justice organization called The City School and the alumni board of Social Thought and Political Economy at UMASS/Amherst. She lives in Boston and writes for ZNet and TeleSUR.
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