moral baby (part 3) - Raising a moral child: Rules and discipline

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1. How the brain bridges facts and emotions

If you eavesdrop on the human brain while it is busy wrestling with ethical choices, you see a bewildering number of regions becoming as active as an Iron Chef episode. The lateral orbitofrontal cortex; the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, right lateralized; the ventral striatum; the ventromedial hypothalamus; the amygdala—all get involved. Emotions and logic, are freely and messily mixed up in the brain.
How do we get Kant (logic) and Hume (emotion) out of all these structures? We are only in the beginning stages of understanding how they function in moral decisions. We know there is a regional division of labor: The surface regions are preoccupied with assessing facts. The deeper regions are preoccupied with processing emotions. They are connected by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This is oversimplified, but think of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex as the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco (emotions) to its northern neighbor, Marin County (just the facts, Ma’am). Here’s how some scientists think the traffic generally flows:

1. An emotional reaction occurs. When a child’s brain is confronted with a moral dilemma, San Francisco is alerted first. The child’s deep, mostly unconscious circuitry generates an emotional reaction—a Post-it note.

2. The signal is carried across the bridge. That message is spirited across the VMPFC, the cellular Golden Gate connecting lower and higher centers of the brain.

3. Fact centers analyze it and decide what to do. The signal arrives at the neuroanatomical equivalent of Marin County. The child’s brain reads the note and makes up its mind about what to do. It judges right from wrong, critical from trivial, necessary from elective, and ultimately lands upon on some behavioral course of action. The decision is executed.

This all occurs in the space of a few milliseconds, a speed requiring that the emotion-generating areas of the brain work in such close concert with the rational areas that it is impossible to tell where one starts and the other leaves off. The integration is so tight, we can actually say that without the irrational, you can’t achieve the rational.

This biology tells us that emotional regulation is an important component of raising a moral child. So is executive function. The healthy integration of both processes will go a long way toward keeping a child in touch with her inner Mother Teresa.

2. Raising a moral child: Rules and discipline

So, the question now becomes: If kids are born with an innate number of moral construction materials, how do we help our children build moral houses worth inhabiting? How do we get them to that coveted stage of moral internalization?

Families who raise moral kids follow very predictable patterns when it comes to rules and discipline. The patterns are not a behavioral insurance policy, but they are as close as research gets us right now. Many interlocking components make up these patterns; an illustration from my wife’s kitchen may simplify things. We used to keep a three-legged stool near the refrigerator to help our boys reach the shelves. Think of the flat seat of that stool as representing the development of a moral awareness, or conscience. Each leg represents what researchers know about how to support it. You need all three legs for the stool to fulfill its job description. This well-balanced triad statistically provides children with the sturdiest seat—the most finely attuned moral reflexes. The three legs are:

• Clear, consistent rules and rewards
• Swift punishment
• Explaining the rules
I’ll borrow scenes from a TV show to illustrate each.

2.1. Clear, consistent rules and rewards

A little boy at the dinner table punches his brother, demanding, “I want your ice, now!” Mom and Dad look horrified. A plump, elegant stranger with a British accent also sits at the table. She doesn’t seem horrified at all. She is, however, taking notes, something like a product tester. “What are you going to do? she asks the parents calmly. The boy punches his brother again. “I will take away your dessert if you do that again”, Mom says sternly to the child. He does it again. Mom looks down at her plate. Dad looks away, angry. The parents, it seems, have no idea how to answer the British woman’s question.

Welcome to the invasive world of the TV nanny. You’ve probably seen these reality shows, all of which follow a familiar formula: Families clearly out of control allow a camera crew access to their lives, all in the company of a professional nanny. Invariably blessed with an authoritative accent from the British Isles, she proceeds to act like a Nottingham sheriff come to clean house. The nanny has a week to perform her domestic miracle, transforming the harried parents into loving disciplinarians and their little hellions into angels. Among the scenes:

Toddler Aiden refuses to go to bed, wailing at the top of his lungs. He knows that when his parents say, “Lights out—I mean it”, they don’t really mean it at all. If there is a curfew, it is unannounced or unenforced, and its absence makes Nanny’s brow wrinkle. It takes Aiden hours to go to bed.

A little boy named Mike accidently trips on the stairs, dropping a bunch of books he was carrying. The little guy cringes and tries to hide, expecting a yelling from his moody father. He gets one, gale force. Nanny intervenes: She goes over to the boy, helps him pick up the books, and says with a sad kindness, “You look really afraid, Mike. Did your dad frighten you?” Little Mike nods, then bolts up the stairs. Later that night, like a British bulldog, Nanny gives the dad a biting lecture about the child’s need to feel safe.

Amanda makes an effort to go to bed on time all by herself, which she had resisted before. This effort goes unnoticed, however, because the parents are busy chasing her younger twin brothers, trying to get them to brush their teeth. Once finished, the parents flop down in front of the television. Nanny tucks neglected Amanda into bed and says, “Good job. You did that all by yourself, and no fuss! Wow!”

The TV nannies solutions are sometimes irritating, sometimes spot on. But in these cases they follow the behavioral science of our first leg of discipline: consistent rules that are rewarded on a regular basis. Watch what they do, paying attention to four characteristics.

Your rules are reasonable and clear

In the example of Aiden above, the toddler either does not have a set bedtime or ignores the one that’s supposed to be in place. His only guidance is his parent’s behavior, which is waffling and ambiguous. Aiden has no direction and, at the end of a busy, tiring day, very little social reserve. No wonder he shrieks.
Nanny’s solution? Next day, she brings in a physical chart with rules and expectations written right on it—including a reasonably formulated time for bed—then mounts it where the entire family can see. The chart produces an objective authority where the rule is a) realistic, b) clearly stated, and c) visible to all.

You are warm and accepting when administering rules

Mike, the boy who wants to hide because of dropped books, clearly has been yelled at before. Cringing with fear is an obvious sign that the kid does not feel safe at that moment and may not feel safe generally. (Getting yelled at for something as innocent as accidently dropping books is consistent with the latter.) This is a warning bell for Nanny. She tries to communicate safety to the little guy—note her immediate empathy—and she later upbraids Mike’s dad, telling him he needs to choose a calmer, more measured response if he wants Mike’s behavior to change. Remarkably, the dad listens.

You know by now that the brain’s chief interest is safety. When rules are not administered in safety, the brain jettisons any behavioral notion except one: escaping the threat. When rules are administered by warm, accepting parents, moral seeds are much more likely to take root.
So, you have crystal-clear rules, and you administer them in a certain manner. The next two steps involve what you do when the rules are followed.

Every time your child follows the rules, you offer praise

Suppose you want your increasingly sedentary 3-year-old, who happily still craves your attention, to get some exercise outside and play on the swings more often. Problem is, he rarely even goes outside. What are you going to do?

Scientists (and good parents) discovered long ago that you can increase the frequency of a desired behavior if you reinforce the behavior. Children respond to punishment, certainly, but they also respond to praise—and in a way that risks less damage and usually produces better results. Behaviorists call this positive reinforcement. You can even use it to encourage behavior that hasn’t happened yet.

Instead of waiting for your 3-year-old to get on the swings, you can reinforce his behavior every time he gets near the door. After a while, he will spend more time at the door. Then you reinforce his behavior only when he opens the door. Then only when he goes outside. Then when he spends time near the swing set. Eventually, he’ll get on the swings and you two can play together.

This process, called shaping, can take much patience, but it usually doesn’t take much time. Famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner got a chicken to turn the pages of a book as if it were reading in less than 20 minutes using a shaping protocol. Humans are much easier to shape than chickens.

You also praise the absence of bad behavior

Remember Amanda, the little girl who put herself to bed while her parents watched TV? The parents did not praise her obvious lack of fussy behavior, but the nanny did. Praising the absence of a bad behavior is just as important as praising the presence of a good one.

Researchers have measured the effects of these four parenting strategies on moral behavior. When warm, accepting parents set clear and reasonable standards for their kids, then offer them praise for behaving well, children present strong evidence of an internalized moral construct, usually by age 4 or 5. These are hallmark behaviors of Baumrind’s gold-medal authoritative parenting style. They’re not everything you need in your moral tool kit, but from a statistical point of view, you won’t get a good kid without them.
Seeing yourself

Do you do these things, or do you think you do? One of the obstacles to getting parents to change their behavior is making them understand how they are actually coming across to their kids. Nanny helps parents see what she sees by videotaping the families, looking for each person’s cues, and pointing them out. Researchers use the technique, too. Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg at Leiden University, for one, carried a video camera into the homes of 120 families with kids ages 1 to 3. Bakermans-Kranenburg was examining some of the hardest kids on earth to treat: pathologically resistant children who

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