moral baby (part 5) - Explaining the rules

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2. 3. Explaining the rules

Want a simple way to make any form of punishment more effective, long-lasting, and internalized—everything a parent could ask for? It’s the third leg supporting our stool of moral awareness. It just takes one magic sentence, Parke found, added to any explicit command.
Without rationale
“Don’t touch the dog, or you’ll get a timeout.”
With rationale
“Don’t touch the dog, or you’ll get a timeout. The dog has a bad temper, and I don’t want you to get bitten.”
To which sentence would you be more likely to positively respond? If you’re like the rest of the world, it is the second sentence. Parke was able to show that compliance rates soar when some kind of cognitive rationale is given to a child. The rationale consists of explaining why the rule—and its consequences—exist. (Works well with adults, too.) You can use this after a rule has been broken, too. Say your child yells in a quiet theater. The punishment would include an explanation of how his yelling affected other people and how he might offer amends, such as apologizing.

Parenting researchers call this inductive discipline, and it is incredibly powerful. The parents of kids with a mature moral attitude practice it. Psychologists even think they know why it works. Let’s say little Aaron has been punished for a moral infraction—stealing a pencil from classmate Jimmy—just before a test. The punishment was subtractive in nature—Aaron would have no dessert that night. But Aaron was not just punished and left alone. He was also given the magic follow-up sentence, involving explanations ranging from “How could Jimmy possibly complete his test without his pencil? to “Our family doesn’t steal.”
Here’s what happens to Aaron’s behavior when explanations are supplied consistently over the years:

1. When Aaron thinks about committing that same forbidden act in the future, he will remember the punishment. He becomes more physiologically aroused, generating uncomfortable feelings.

2. Aaron will make an internal attribution for this uneasiness. Examples might include:“I’d feel awful if Jimmy failed his test,”“I wouldn’t like it if he did that to me”, “I am better than that”, and so on. Your child’s internal attribution originates from whatever rationale you supplied during the correction.

3. Now, knowing why he is uneasy—and wanting to avoid the feeling—Aaron is free to generalize the lesson to other situations. “I probably shouldn’t steal erasers from Jimmy, either.” “Maybe I shouldn’t steal things, period.”

Cue the applause of a million juvenile correction and law-enforcement professionals. Inductive parenting provides a fully adaptable, internalizable moral sensibility—congruent with inborn instincts. (Aaron also was instructed to write a note of apology, which he did the next day.)
Kids who are punished without explanation do not go through these steps. Parke found that such children only externalize their perceptions, saying, “I will get spanked if I do this again.” They were constantly on the lookout for an authority figure; it was the presence of an external credible threat that guided their behavior, not a reasoned response to an internal moral compass. Children who can’t get to step 2 can’t get to step 3, and they are one step closer to Daniel, the boy who stabbed a classmate in the cheek with a pencil.

The bottom line: Parents who provide clear, consistent boundaries whose reasons for existence are always explained generally produce moral kids.

No such thing as one-size-fits-all

Note that I said “generally.” Inductive discipline, powerful as it is, is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. The temperament of the child turns out to be a major factor. For toddlers possessed of a fearless and impulsive outlook on life, inductive discipline can be too weak. Kids with

Should you spank?

Few issues are more incendiary than deciding whether spanking is going to be in your parenting tool kit. Many countries ban the practice outright. Ours doesn’t. More than two-thirds of Americans approve of the practice; 94 percent of Americans have spanked by their kid’s fourth birthday. Generally, spanking is in the punishment-by-removal category.

Over the years, many studies have been devoted to assessing the usefulness of this method, often coming to confusing—even opposing—conclusions. One of the latest lightning rods is a five-year review of the research literature by a committee of child development specialists sponsored by the American Psychological Association. The committee came out against corporeal punishment, finding evidence that spanking caused more behavioral problems than other types of punishment, producing more aggressive, more depressed, more anxious children with lower IQs. A spring 2010 study, led by Tulane University School of Public Health researcher Catherine Taylor, confirms the findings. It found that 3-year-olds who were spanked more than twice in the month prior to the study were 50 percent more likely to be aggressive by age 5, even when controlling for differing levels of aggression among kids and for maternal depression, alcohol or drug use, or spousal abuse.

Hear that furious typing sound? That is the clatter of a thousand blogs springing to life, violently disagreeing with these findings. “It’s associative data only! says one (true). “Not all experts agree!” says another (also true). “Context-dependent studies are missing!”—i.e., do we know that spanking done in a loving inductive household is different from spanking done in a harsh, non-inductive atmosphere? (we don’t). What about parental intention? The list of objections goes on and on. Many come from a growing concern that today’s children are being parented less and less, that contemporary moms and dads are increasingly afraid to discipline their kids.

I am in deep sympathy with this concern. The numbers aren’t, however. In the brain, the fight appears to be between deferred-imitation instincts and moral-internalization proclivities. Spanking is just violent enough to trigger the former more often than the latter.

3-year-olds spanked more than twice in a month were 50 percent more likely to be aggressive by age 5.

As researcher Murray Straus noted in an interview with Scientific American Mind, the linkage between spanking and behavioral unpleasantness is more robust than the linkage between exposure to lead and lowered IQ. More robust, too, than the association between secondhand smoke and cancer. Few people argue about these associations; indeed, people win lawsuits with associative numbers in those health-related cases. So why is there so much controversy about whether to spank, when there should be none? Good question.

I do know that inductive parenting takes effort. Hitting a kid does not. In my opinion, hitting is a lazy form of parenting. If you’re wondering, my wife and I don’t do it.

The discipline kids prefer

A number of years ago, several groups of researchers decided to get kids opinions of parenting styles. Using sophisticated surveys, they asked kids between the ages of preschool and high school what they thought worked and what they thought failed. The questions were cleverly couched: The kids listened to stories about misbehaving kids, then were asked, “What should the parent do? What would you do?” They were given a list of methods of discipline.

The results were instructive. By a large margin, inductive parenting got the biggest statistical high-five. The next most-favored behavior was actual punishment. What came in dead last? The withdrawal of parental affection or laissez-faire permissiveness. Taken together, the style of correction kids liked the best was an inductive style spiced with a periodic sprinkling of a display of power. The results to some extent depended upon the age of the responder. The 4- to 9-year-old crowd hated permissiveness more than any other behavior, even love-withdrawal styles. That was not true of the 18-year-olds.

Overall, a clear picture emerges about how to raise well-adjusted, moral children. Parents whose rules issue from warm acceptance and whose rationales are consistently explained end up being perceived as reasonable and fair, rather than as capricious and dictatorial. They are most likely to evince from their kids committed compliance rather than committed defiance. Remind you of Diana Baumrind’s authoritative parenting style—restrictive but warm? This was the one style statistically most likely to produce the smartest, happiest children. It turns out these smart, happy children will be the most moral, too.

Key points
• Your child has an innate sense of right and wrong.
• In the brain, regions that process emotions and regions that guide decision-making work together to mediate moral awareness.
• Moral behavior develops over time and requires a particular kind of guidance.
• How parents handle rules is key: realistic, clear expectations; consistent, swift consequences for rule violation; and praise for good behavior.
• Children are most likely to internalize moral behavior if parents explain why a rule and its consequences exist.

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