Saturday, 29 August 2009

Raising Good Kids [updated]

The sad situation that’s developed in the aftermath of last week’s referendum on smacking is that all debates on raising good kids have now become framed by the issue of how they’re disciplined rather than how they’re raised to become fine adults – and on what other parents are supposedly doing wrong instead of what it means to do right yourself. 

And this is exactly backwards. “Discipline” is just a nice person’s way to say punish.  To take nothing away from your right to raise good kids as you choose (which in their equating of smacking with beating is essentially what the Bradford-Harridan axis wanted to take away) , if you want to raise good kids, the method by which they’re punished is not the first or even most important tool in a parent’s toolbox. 

The issue has become so much framed by the debate over whether or not smacking should be legal or illegal, that people seem to have forgotten that the law in no way offers a guide to what you should do, only what you may not do. Legality is not morality – or even necessarily good parenting. Avoiding sending the wrong messages is a very different thing to making sure you send the right ones.

So let’s see if we can step outside the essentially negative “debate” over whether or not smacking should be legal or illegal, and have a look at what parents ought to be doing if they want to raise good kids, and where they might get some assistance.

art_v1n2livingston_5 First off, let’s recognise that the development of good character in their children is the goal of many, if not most, parents -- but young children aren’t yet able to grasp for themselves such abstract virtues as honesty, responsibility and productivity. (And something similar might be said about many parents, who perhaps never will.).  Fundamentally, children lack yet the ability to project the future into the present in a way that would demonstrate to them the positive long-range consequences of acting well, and in any case they lack the experiences on which to draw that allow them to draw those lessons.

It’s not enough for you to simply draw up a list of rules and tell your child to follow them – to give them a stamp on the hand when they do and a session on the naughty mat when they don’t. What you’re after in the long run is for the child himself to internalise a set of virtues that are necessary for a successful life.  That’s what it means to be good, right?  To have internalised desirable traits and virtues like rationality, justice, responsibility, benevolence, independence, pride and integrity.  It’s those you want to cement in, not a list of do’s and don’ts.

Drawing on the literature in brain research and psychology, Vassar College professor of cognitive science Professor Kenneth Livingston explains how “the growth of virtue can be encouraged, despite the fact that young children lack the capacity to project the consequences of their actions very far into the future.” Prof Livingston argues that the parent's job is be what he calls a 'virtual consequence generator' - to stand in for the future and structure the child's experience of the world in a way that reflects the abstract moral principles involved.

"The parent’s job [he says] is to bring the future into the present for the child, to make it palpable, and to do so in a way that accurately represents the world as it is—but at a level that is accessible to the child."

As he says in ‘Teaching Albert Honesty’, this is a tall order – and he invites you to look more closely at what he identifies as the three components.

  • “First, the child needs to be able to experience—immediately—the unpleasantness associated with being dishonest or behaving irresponsibly. And of course he needs to have some way of experiencing, also in the present moment, the joys of acting honestly or responsibly.
  • “Second, he has to get information that helps him to build the abstract concept at issue (such as honesty or responsibility), so that what he feels is linked to this more general notion—not merely to the specific situation that provoked the parental response. (Remember, the goal is to internalize a principle, not a list of rules.)
  • “Finally, once an immediate connection is made between the concept of the virtue in question and an emotion associated with achieving or failing to achieve this virtue, the child’s time horizon needs to be stretched to introduce the critical element of anticipation.”

So what does this mean in concrete terms any parent can understand? 

Well, obviously the sharing and reading of stories and fables helps to offer the wide range of experiences he might one day encounter in the world, and help demonstrate for him the long-range consequences for him of acting well – not to mention encouraging him to enjoy reading for himself.  But there are obviously lessons to be drawn and demonstrated in day-today life.

art_v1n2livingston_7 Consider little Albert, who lies about a broken vase. “It wasn’t me who done it,” says Albert, despite that fact that you’ve got him cold.  Suggests Livingston:

The parent might begin by immediately withdrawing a privilege based on trust (like choosing a television program and watching it alone). Albert would feel disappointed or unhappy and, with some discussion of the importance of trust and honesty, might begin to build a concept of truth-telling that transcends the immediate situation with the vase. Later, if Albert lied again about something important, earning a more dramatic punishment, our approach would suggest that the punishment ought to be promised but then delayed for a short time, during which Albert would be encouraged to anticipate what is about to happen.

There are many, many things to be said about how to help concretise values, to bring the future into the present for the child, to accurately represent the world as it is—but at a level that is accessible to the child. And there’s just no way to do all that in a short post. (That is, in what was supposed to be just a short post.) In his lecture on Raising Good Kids,  Livingston offers a few points to keep in mind when considering your strategies":

  1. Know Your Virtues. You can't raise good kids if you don't have a clear sense of the good yourself.  You need to know that there are right and wrong answers; that there really is  such a thing as moral and immoral; that virtues themselves are a positive thing -- that the very purpose of “the good” is to help you achieve your own happiness and success in the world, not to give you a list of things to avoid or feel guilty about.
        Most of all, you need to know and to hold in mind the concrete principle you're hoping to convey when you're confronted with your child in a particular concrete situation.
    (And you need to know too that not every situation with your child has ethical implications. Most times you should just enjoy them.)
  2. Be a Virtual Consequence Generator. A young child may not yet know virtue in the abstract, but he is capable of understanding it in its more concrete particulars IF the parent can help structure his experience in a way that accurately reflects the abstract principle, and that helps him discover it for himself. That's the principle of being the "virtual consequence generator" -- you have to remember that you're "standing in for" the future, and for the much rougher, much less forgiving world in which your child will one day have to function but is not yet able to understand. 
        One of Maria Montessori’s commonly used maxims to keep in mind when helping children was the child is essentially saying: “Help me to do it by myself.”  That’s your job in teaching the virtues.  (It also relates to her idea of the classroom as a "prepared environment,” structured in such a way that the child can discover for himself the leading principles and concepts “revealed” there.) 
  3. Show, Don’t Tell.  Remember that whatever else you say or do to a child in guiding or “redirecting” their behaviour from good to bad (and let’s be clear, that redirection is sometimes going to require some force), the very techniques you employ to redirect a child's behaviour themselves convey a message.
        Make a habit of snatching a toy off him that he's just snatched off a smaller child, and you unavoidably demonstrate to a child that might is right -- and whatever lessons you try to convey on each occasion by talking to him about respecting other people's property will be undercut,and quite another lesson will nonetheless be conveyed.
        Start giving your child stars or stamps on the hand to reward him for acting well, and you demonstrate to a child that his primary reward for acting well is the praise or rewards given to him by authority figures, instead of by his own internalised moral compass (and it’s the internalised moral compass which you're actually trying to develop) - and you're teaching him to look outside for his rewards rather than within. 
         Demonstrate inconsistency in your punishments or rewards, with different consequences for the same behaviour, and you teach him the lesson that different consequences can follow from the same actions. 
    Remember, in other words, that it’s not primarily quiet and peaceful short-term consequences you’re after – what you’re looking for is successful long-run consequences.
  4. Observe that a child isn't a china doll.  As Livingston says all this can all sound like a very tall order. But don’t beat yourself up when things go wrong; a child is less “breakable” than you might think. They do have free will, and you need to recognise that as well as try to harness it.  Nature and nurture AND the child's own individualistic volition act together in helping the child to develop himself, provided that you "prepare the environment" well to help him do that.

So all that said, it’s still barely scratched the subject’s surface of how you can raise good kids.  So here’s a few books, articles, blogs and lectures to read and listen to that will offer you more guidance suggested mostly by some good friends and colleagues of mine who know much more about most of this than I do, and from most of which I’ve taken what I’ve written here:


UPDATE: My friends and colleagues at the Maria Montessori Education Foundation tell me I should let you know about three upcoming public events for parents with two world-class speakers  in Auckland, Tauranga and Wellington.

AUCKLAND: PUBLIC ADDRESS - ‘Good at Doing Things'
Professor of paediatrics and neurology at the University of Minnesota, Steven Hughes appears at AUT’s Northcote Campus on Friday September 18 to to talk about how Montessori education provides children with a lifetime of success, how it parallels what is known about brain development, and how it fosters the development of empathy and leadership.  Dr Hughes, who developed his own interest in Montessori education when he saw the success and happiness of his own children in their Montessori classroom, will show how and why Montessoir kids become ‘good at doing things,’ and why that matters.
This talk -- which he’s given in Amsterdam, Minnesota, Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and now Auckland – is especially good for fathers who may wonder about this “Montessori-thing!”

* * Friday September 18 @ 7-9pm,  $10 per person.
* * AUT Campus, 90 Akoranga Drive, Northcote, Auckland
For ticket information and bookings, email or freephone Ana on 0800 336612.

TAURANGA: PUBLIC ADDRESS - 'The Child - A Social Being'
London-based Montessori trainer Cheryl Ferreira talks on Saturday October 10th on how the first step in ‘the child as a social being’ is to help the child develop all his functions as a free individual, which is what fosters that development of personality that actuates social organisation.

* * Saturday October 10th @ 7- 9p.m, $15 payment at the door (includes light refreshments)
* * Historic Village on 17th, Seventeenth Avenue, Tauranga
* * For ticket information and bookings email or phone Carol 021 111 4133 by Tues Oct. 6th.

WELLINGTON:  PUBLIC ADDRESS - ‘Children Creating and Developing Language from Birth Onwards' 
London-based Montessori trainer Cheryl Ferreira talks on Saturday October 17th on how children create and develop language from birth onwards
Join us to discuss the factors that impact on the development of spoken language from 0-6 and how this impacts on writing and reading'.

* * Saturday October 17th @ 7-9p.m, $10 payment at the door (includes tea &coffee)
* * Wa Ora Montessori School, 278 Waddington Road, Naenae, Lower Hutt, Wellington*
* * For ticket information and bookings contact or phone Anna on (04) 232 3428 by Tues Oct. 13th.


  1. Excellent - nothing to disagree with here. "Let consequences teach" is the maxim, and while consequences should be more or less immediate for a 2 year old we can draw that out a bit for adolescents. And the consequences have to actually *teach* not punish.

    The teaching values thing is so true. That's why it is annoying to hear the usual bromides like --what if my kid wants to poke the dog's eyes out, stick a fork in an electrical socket, run across a 4 lane highway, or sleep with anyone who is handy.

  2. "Start giving your child stars or stamps on the hand to reward him for acting well, and you demonstrate to a child that his primary reward for acting well is the praise or rewards given to him by authority figures, instead of by his own internalised moral compass... and you're teaching him to look outside for his rewards rather than within. "

    I had never thought of it this way before, and now it seems so obvious. Giving a child rewards through stamps etc is the way to encourage then to be second handers/ Peter Keatings, behaviour which has long-term effects on their decisionmaking (including issues of morality). As you say, children should be raised to act in ways which they see as in their interest or in accordance with their "moral compass" as you phrase it.

    Well written and interesting, PC.


  3. Julian said...
    Giving a child rewards through stamps etc is the way to encourage ...

    That's reinforcement learning, via rewards & penalties. The human brain is hardwired to work that way, but it is only one way that humans do learning. There are a few other methods of learning as well.

    Here is a and excellent description via YouTube about this form of reinforcement learning. The video targets computing professionals but the description is quite general that anyone can follow it pretty easily.

    Reinforcement learning introduction

    The following YouTube shows how a small robot is using reinforcement learning to guide itself to a target.

    Real Live Robot Learning

    Here is another robot. This robot looks like a small child, that tries to learn how to walk. The first few attempts would definitely a failure but improve in consequent trials.

    Autonomous spider learns to walk forward by reinforcement learning

    Reinforcement requires the learner to interact with its environment. Parents or guardians are part of the environment of children.

  4. Here is short documentary on YouTube about reinforcement.

    Use of Reinforcement and Punishment in Shaping a Child's Beh

  5. Brian Scurfield29 Aug 2009, 22:30:00

    About the lying example:

    Maybe Christine lied? Maybe it was Beth but Christine wants to pin it on Albert to protect Beth.

    Maybe it was Christine who set it up to look like Beth.

    Maybe it was Beth and Christine mistakenly thinks it was Albert.

    Maybe Albert and Christine are both mistaken. Maybe it was the wind.

    I could go on, but the point is that Albert is not automatically guilty because Christine said so.

    OK, suppose Albert is in fact guilty. Why did he lie? If Albert broke the vase accidently why could he not just tell his parents about it? The example indicates that his parents have a habit of getting angry about accidents for they were about to vent their displeasure at Beth. So Albert may have acted in fear of his parents' anger. Punishing Albert does not resolve the other problem that is here, the problem that his parents have, and because that problem is not resolved, Albert may figure that he needs to become a better liar.

    Later that day, Albert's uncle came around to visit. His parents made him say "thank you" when his uncle give him some sweets he didn't want. They made him lie! After punishing him for lying!?

    We here, on this blog, know that whether lying is good or bad depends on the circumstances. Anne Frank's life depended on lies. A child's life in some circumstances, may, literally, depend on lying so as to avoid his parent's displeasure. Teaching a child that it is always wrong to lie is to avoid moral complexity and that is bad.

  6. This is a great post, and thanks for mentioning the Non-Punitive Discipline Blog Carnival. I actually host it, from my blog

    Kelly Elmore

  7. Deborah Coddington in the Herald On Sunday unhesitatingly engages in anti-smacking deceit; she equates the 'No' enthusiasts with perpetrators of the appalling murders of Nia Glassie and James Whakaruru.

    An ACT MP without latent Stalinist tendencies; is there such a beast?

  8. Brian, first off I've already stipulated that you've got Albert cold. That was specifically to avoid seeing you head off into a wonderland of "maybes."

    Second, I also stipulated that in order to raise good kids you must first of all have a clear sense of the good yourself. And in relation to your specific objection, that means understanding that honesty is contextual. That you don't owe the truth to the Nazis, or the IRD. Honesty, in the practical sense, is a characteristic refusal to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others. In lying to either the Nazis, or the IRD, you're not trying to gain a value -- you're trying to avoid having it destroyed.

    That's not "moral complexity," that's simple bloody common sense.

    The fact that both knowledge and honesty are contextual does not make them "complex" - that you repeatedly cite "complexity" however suggests you use this as a means by which to undermine certainty.

    It's not pretty to watch.

    BTW, for a brief summary of the seven Objectivist virtues, including a discussion of honesty, have a look at this.

  9. RUTH: Thanks. 'Preciate that. :-)

    FF: Careful you don't fall into the behaviourist's morass that Livingston warns about, which is where the "reinforcement learning" notion comes from. Children are not robots, pigeons or rats.

    Livingston talks about a "co-action model" that recognises nature and nurture and free-will, and the means by which children learn -- which is different to the way robots, rats and pigeons do.

    I'd recommend reading his linked article a bit more. :-)

    JULIAN: Thanks for that. The Peter Keating reference is well spotted.

    ELIJAH: Unfortunately, Deborah began exhibiting all those tendencies when she was still Libz Deputy. Indeed, that was undoubtedly the leading reason she left.

    KELLY: You're welcome, Kelly, and thanks for the praise. I've updated the carnival link to include your excellent blog. :-)

  10. Brian Scurfield30 Aug 2009, 21:44:00

    PC - The article you linked to says that Christine tipped you off about Albert's guilt, not that you got Albert cold. The point I was making is that parents, like children, are fallible and I think a good parent acknowledges their own fallibility. Note, as I tried to point out, the article implicitly makes clear that Albert's parent has a problem too. The parent was going to go off at young Beth. This, despite, leaving the vase where children are playing and where accidents will happen. Do you get angry at a young child for an accident, ? Nowhere in the article does it mention that Albert's parent is trying to get better at anticipating accidents and better at controlling the emotion of anger. Albert would no doubt like these problems corrected. For him, punishment is not an option.

    About certainty: it is not needed to grow knowledge. Knowledge grows when errors are detected and solutions are put forward to correct those errors. It is impossible to say that a theory we hold dear does not contain errors. Justification and proof do not make a theory true. The truth of a theory is to be found in reality and to get at the truth we must look for error. So, yes, I'm undermining certainty, but I'm not undermining knowledge growth or truth.

  11. Brian Scurfield31 Aug 2009, 06:03:00

    PC - To my previous comment I should add that I agree wholeheartedly with what your the post says about punishment, rewards, and rules: They prevent a child from thinking.

  12. It's not about child rearing, it's about control.

    When left authoritarians overstep themselves the first thing that happens is you get a swarm of (worthless) "studies" thrown at you supporting their position followed by ad hominen
    recriminations about how the opponents don't care about which ever victim class the left is using this week to push their agenda.

    The response to this from the people trying to maintain some particle of freedom in their lives is often trying to counterattack on the authoritarian's own ground by wading into the debate the authoritarians set up. This is a mistake.

    Talking about parenting is irrelevant when the actual debate is about at what point the government gets in bed with your family and tells you how to raise the kids.

  13. "It's not about child rearing, it's about control."

    Well, I've been saying for some time that "all this anti-smacking spin and nonsense is not primarily about child discipline. It has come about because Sue Bradford and her fellow travellers wanted to use those who cannot tell the difference between a smack and assault to advance the state's control over families."

    So I can hardly disagree with you on that front.

    But what I'm arguing here in the first few paragraphs is that parents shouldn't take their eye off the ball by the way the "debate" has been framed.

    Far from talking about parenting being irrelevant, it's more relevant than ever. Not to give up the battle, but it's definitely time to go back and look at the basics.

    The issue has become so much framed by the debate over whether or not smacking should be legal or illegal, that parents seem to have forgotten that the law in no way offers a guide to what you should do, only what you may not do.

    So what I wanted to do here was to step outside the essentially negative “debate” over whether or not smacking should be legal or illegal, and have a look at what parents ought to be doing if they want to raise good kids, and where they might get some assistance.

    Because in the end, what YOU do is about child rearing -- and debating the legality of smacking or not smacking won't give you any guidance there at all.

  14. Yes, very good post PC. And you're right to put the whole smacking thing into this perspective.

    - Sam P


1. Comments are welcome and encouraged.
2. Comments are moderated. Gibberish, spam & off-topic grandstanding will be removed. Tu quoque will be moderated. Links to bogus news sites (and worse) will be deleted.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say it, it's important enough to put a name to it.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.