Social media was abuzz last week with commentary on “Raising a Moral Child,” the cover story of the April 11 New York Times Week in Review. In a nutshell, author Wharton Psychology Professor Adam Grant highlights interesting and informative research showing that praising a child’s character, not actions, results in more generous behavior because it helps the child internalize generosity as part of her identity. Later in the piece, Dr. Grant suggests how parents should respond to a child’s “bad behavior”:
The most effective response to bad behavior is to express disappointment. According to independent reviews by Professor Eisenberg and David R. Shaffer, parents raise caring children by expressing disappointment and explaining why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation. This enables children to develop standards for judging their actions, feelings of empathy and responsibility for others, and a sense of moral identity, which are conducive to becoming a helpful person. 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.”
To behave adaptively, it may indeed be helpful for a child to have “standards for judging their actions, feelings of empathy and responsibility for others, and a sense of moral identity.” However, according to Think:Kids extensive research, adaptive behavior requires a child to have mastery of an array of thinking skills – specifically, executive functioning, cognitive flexibility, emotional regulation, language processing, and social skills. For most children, lagging skills – not will – is the root cause of maladaptive behavior; therefore, the more effective parental response is to identify and help build those lagging skills through collaborative problem solving.
Dr. Grant’s recommended responses to “bad behavior,” while perhaps effective under certain conditions, are fraught with potential drawbacks. “Expressing disappointment” is an external motivator that is effective only if the child is already competent in the skills underlying the expected adaptive behavior and simply lacks motivation. “Explaining why something is wrong, how it affected others, and how the child can rectify the situation” has some value, but is essentially the adult problem-solving the “bad behavior” without the participation of the child, forfeiting a valuable opportunity for building the child’s skills. And finally, communicating “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,”” without any accompanying skill building, is a set-up for failure for children with lagging skills and has the added detrimental side-effect of making those children feel bad about themselves and about the parent.
Parents aspiring to raise a moral child would do well by coupling Dr. Grant’s useful advice and framework with a more compassionate – and accurate – understanding of the root cause of most challenging behavior: lagging skills. After all, as Think:Kids believes, “Kids do well if they can, not if they want to.”
Guest blogger Karen Kraut, MPH, Certified Think:Kids mentor