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.
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.
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":
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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:
- Kenneth R. Livingston: ‘Teaching Albert Honesty’ – online article proposing a way for parents to help children begin to lay the foundations of moral intelligence.
- Kenneth R. Livingston: Raising Good Kids – How to help children develop the traits of character that are required for happiness and success. Drawing on the literature in psychology, Professor Livingston discusses how parents and teachers can encourage the growth of virtue in children, even before children have acquired explicit moral concepts. (Audio cassette)
- Rational Jenn’s posts on rational parenting, and the regular Non-Punitive Discipline Blog Carnival hosted at Kelly Elmore’s Reepicheep’s Coracle blog.
- Adel Faber & Elaine Mazlish: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk – innovative ways to solve common parenting problems.
- Alfie Kohn: Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason – the way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, says Kohn, not by following directions. Children do best with unconditional love, respect and the opportunity to make their own choices. Kohn questions why parents and parenting literature focus on compliance and quick fixes, and points out that docility and short-term obedience are not what most parents desire of their children in the long run.
- Alfie Kohn: Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, As, Praise, and Other Bribes – why rewards, including praise, fail to promote lasting behavior change and frequently make things worse.
- Celia Lashlie: He’ll Be OK: Growing Gorgeous Boys Into Good Men – tools for parents who want their sons to become good men.
- Jane M. Healy: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think & What We Can Do About It – why a TV is not a good babysitter, and how to make your child a genuine life-long learner.
- Lynne Lawrence: Montessori Read and Write: A Parent's Guide to Literacy for Children – how to help chidren learn to read and write, and to enjoy learning.
- Paula Polk Lillard: Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Adulthood – a reminder that children need different things at each stage of their development, and a guide to what those stages are.
- Tara Smith: Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist – if you want to “know your virtues,” specifically the seven traits of character required for happiness and success, then Smith’s book of the seven Objectivist virtues (with a clear and easily readable chapter on each) is your ideal menu.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or phone Anna on (04) 232 3428 by Tues Oct. 13th.