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
“Don’t touch the dog, or you’ll get a timeout.”
“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:
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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.
• 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.