When my four-year-old misbehaves (and boy, does she), I have about 3.7 seconds to run through a litany of possible parental responses in my brain, and choose one.
There’s the old standby — shutting down the behaviour by whatever means possible and throwing in the line, “Because I said so” if questions are dare raised. But it turns out that exclusively using this approach is not great in the long run, producing children (and later adults) who may be obedient, but frightened, with resentment that manifests in destructive ways.
I usually instead opt to enforce the rule, and then offer rationale as to why she must stop sleeping with her rock collection/running through the cereal aisle/feeding blueberries to Snuggabear. This seems to be a solid tactic, according to psychologists — giving kids context provides them with tools to build their own moral framework.
But does it actually shift behaviour?
It depends on how we frame it, according to a fascinating, dog-ear-worthy chapter in Adam Grant’s book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World. Grant, an organisational psychologist and Wharton professor, suggests through a collection of research that simply explaining how the rules affect the individual child may not be enough to spring her into positive action.
Instead, when enforcing discipline, emphasise the consequences for others.
Whether or not you have kids, you probably have an opinion on parenting. Should mums and dads enforce rules strictly, whether their kids like it or not? Or is it more important to let kids enjoy themselves, even if that means bending the rules sometimes?Read more
Grant points to the pioneering study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner, who compared the childhood experiences of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust with their neighbours who… didn’t. What differed? Parenting styles. Wow, and crap.
When the Oliners examined the guidance of the Holocaust rescuers’ parents, they found that they tended to give “explanations of why behaviours are inappropriate, often with reference to their consequences for others.” While the bystanders’ parents focused on enforcing compliance with the rules for their own sake, the rescuers’ parents encouraged their children to consider the impact of their actions on others.
Highlight consequences for others directs attention to the distress of the person who may be harmed by an individual’s behaviour, fuelling empathy for her. It also helps children understand the role that their own actions played in causing the harm, resulting in guilt. As Emma Bombeck put it, “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” The dual moral emotions of empathy and guilt activate the desire to right the wrongs of the past and behave better in the future.
When people are told that certain behaviours come with personal consequences, they rationalise. For kids, that might look something like this:
Parent: “Stop climbing up the slide. You’ll get kicked in the face when a kid comes down.”
What the child is thinking: “Well, I’ve done this 27 times before and emerged unscathed, so yeah, I feel pretty confident about my current course of action.”
But when consequences for others are included (“Stop climbing up the slide. You’re not letting a friend slide down, and she’s sad”), the magical empathy/guilt combo kicks in.
Emphasising consequences for others is a trusty motivator for grownups, too. Grant and his colleague David Hofmann did an experiment where they went to a hospital and posted two different signs in places where doctors and nurses wash their hands.
All they changed was a single word.
When the doctors and nurses were reminded how their actions would affect patients, they washed their hands 10 per cent more often and used 45 per cent more soap and gel.
The other day, I decided to try emphasising the consequences for others with my four-year-old. While we stood in line to order cheeseburgers, she started swinging the line divider. Normally, I would have said something like, “Stop — that’s gonna topple onto you and you’ll get hurt,” but instead, I said, “Stop — that might topple over and hurt another person.”
She paused, and I swear I could almost see the little gears in her head spin. She slumped over, calmly walked over to me, and started swinging on my leg.