Monday, April 14, 2014

Achievement and Morality Require Different Strategies

Now that we live in a house -- a real, honest-to-goodness house -- we have started getting the Sunday New York Times delivered again. I know it seems antiquated, and I still get most of my information online. But there is something delicious about eating breakfast in bed and reading the Sunday Times.

This was our first weekend with the paper, and the first article I read was so significant to me, I wanted to share it here. The opinion piece was entitled "Raising a Moral Child" by Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Encouraging Achievement: Praise Effort

Grant begins with the infamous 1998 Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller study about fifth graders and achievement. (I wrote about intelligence versus resilience when the Brilliant Book Club discussed Christine Gross-Loh's Parenting Without Borders.) In short, Dweck and Mueller write, "six studies demonstrated that praise for intelligence had more negative consequences for students' achievement motivation than praise for effort."

In other words, to encourage achievement (and favor resilience) it is better to say something along the lines of "I'm proud of how hard you worked on that project," as opposed to, "You got an A because you are so smart." Children understand inherently that they can always work harder as opposed to be smarter, which seems more fixed.

Encouraging Moral Behavior: Praise Character

While such a strategy works for achievement, what about morality: kindness, compassion, generosity, a sense of right and wrong? According to Grant, "[g]enetic twin studies suggest that anywhere from a quarter to more than half of our propensity to be giving and caring is inherited." That leaves 50 to 75 percent to nurture.

When it comes to morality, Grant explains,
Many parents believe it’s important to compliment the behavior, not the child — that way, the child learns to repeat the behavior. Indeed, I know one couple who are careful to say, “That was such a helpful thing to do,” instead of, “You’re a helpful person.”
But a 1980 study of seven- and eight-year-olds showed that praising helpful behavior ("that was a good thing to do") was not as effective in encouraging generosity as praising their helpfulness ("you are a helpful person"). Grant says, 
Praising their character helped them internalize it as part of their identities. The children learned who they were from observing their own actions: I am a helpful person.
And further,
When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.

Discouraging Immoral Behavior: Express Disappointment

Grant explains that when children cause harm, they typically feel one of two moral emotions: shame or guilt.
Shame makes children feel small and worthless.... In contrast, guilt is a negative judgment about an action, which can be repaired by good behavior.
Given these definitions, we clearly want to steer away from using shame as a tactic. (Brene Brown agrees vehemently in her book, I Thought It Was Just Me.)

So how do we avoid using shame in our parenting? Grant explains that,
[S]hame emerges when parents express anger, withdraw their love, or try to assert their power through threats of punishment: Children may begin to believe that they are bad people.... Fearing this effect, some parents fail to exercise discipline at all, which can hinder the development of strong moral standards.
I appreciated that last line, because I am definitely of the camp that children need guidance to develop good character. But sometimes it is difficult to know exactly how far to go when disciplining our children, especially in a society in which many people believe the word "no" is somehow toxic to a child's development. Here's what Grant says:
The most effective response to bad behavior is to express disappointment.... [P]arents raise caring children by expressing disappointment and explaining why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation....[i.e.,] “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better.” [emphasis is mine]

Modeling Moral Behavior: Action Speaks Louder Than Words

Finally, Grant discussed the ever-present challenge of modeling moral behavior versus explaining the difference between right and wrong. He references a "classic" 1975 study on the generosity patterns of 7- to 11-year-olds, in which the children keep all the tokens they won in a game or donate some to a poor child. In different scenarios, they watched the adult in the study play the game generously or selfishly and then discuss the importance of giving, taking or neither.

The study found that the children were more likely to be generous themselves when they watched the adult playing the game generously, even if the adult had, in the same scenario, preached taking (selfishness).  

And in a follow-up longitudinal study, "the most generous children were those who watched the teacher give but not say anything." [emphasis is mine]

In other words, action speaks louder than words. Much, much louder.

Read the whole opinion piece here, and let me know your thoughts below, on Facebook or on Google+