So, I started telling y’all about an interesting article on what research can tell us about raising moral kids. Today’s take-away from that article has to do with the role of positive re-enforcement in creating moral children. But first, a quick word about positive re-enforcement. Back when I was in college, in the very first education class I took, the very first lesson we got on classroom management was this: punishment is the least effective tool in your disciplinary toolbox. So it should be the tool of last resort, not your go-to when things got rough.
There was plenty of research to back this claim up as well as the fact that exemplary teachers report that this is their experience as well. By far, the most effective tool you have is praising what a kid gets right. Everyone wants approval. It’s human nature. If you show approval of the sort of behavior you want from your kids, they will engage in more of that behavior because it now has a very positive association for them. It reminds them of something about themselves that they can feel good about.
Of course, then you have nimrods like the man who is principal of our local middle school. I once had a conversation with him that, I swear to you, went like this:
Me: Mr. Nimrod Idiot, Sir, as I am sure you are aware, since it’s the first lesson they teach on classroom management, punishment is the least effective form of discipline. I am concerned that the only discipline tool being used to address the tiniest of infractions involving my dear innocent child is punishment. The child has being punished for a wide variety of infractions, including, but not limited to: trying to take a plastic bottle he brought from home out of the lunch room so he could continue reusing it, being late for class because the janitor hasn’t managed to get the lock on his locker fixed and you won’t assign him a new one and laughing at a joke I made when he called from the office to ask me a question. I would like to discuss alternative ways of helping my child to conform to the school’s expectations which do not depend on punishing him continually.
Principal Nimrod: Yes, you are correct, we do know from research and experience that punishment is the least effective form of discipline. However, we just believe that if we continually confront and punish students when they step out of line, they will eventually get tired of it and exert some self-discipline to change their behavior.
OK, I didn’t actually call him Mr. Nimrod Idiot, that’s just what I call him in my head, but seriously – that’s nearly word-for-word what he said. And that’s why I think I need to go pray for him some more.
Anyways, positive re-enforcement is a tried and true tactic, but it turns out that there’s a small caveat; you can do it wrong. It came out a few years back that what you praise a child for is more important than we thought. What researchers have told us is that we should praise a kid’s hard work, effort, creativity, etc rather than praising the child. So you say, “you worked really hard on that project” instead of, “your project is wonderful. You’re so smart.” Because if the project is wonderful because she’s so smart, then what happens when she makes a not-wonderful project? It turns out that praising a child’s innate qualities results in kids who are afraid of screwing up, lest they be found to be inadequate as a human being. Or kids who think you’re an idiot because even they know that you don’t have to be a genius to draw two lines and glue googly eyes on top.
You are supposed to tell kids that their project is wonderful because they worked hard, were creative, went the extra mile. Because praising what a kid does right encourages them to engage in more of it. That way if the project isn’t wonderful, the child knows it’s because he or she didn’t work hard enough. No word on how to prep them for the reality that hard work often isn’t nearly enough to make everything you do wonderful. Of course, teaching children the fine art of self-blaming is socially useful, so that may be more feature than bug.
At any rate, the point is that teaching your kids to self-blame may increase their productivity and the quality of their work. But isn’t really the way to go when it comes to raising good people. It turns out that if you want your kid to be a good person, you should praise them directly and not just praise their good behavior.
For example, in one study, kids were asked to share with other children who didn’t have enough. Some children were praised for their action: “I like the way you shared with those kids. They must have been very happy that you shared with them.”
Others were praised for their character: “you must be a very generous person to have shared like that. I can tell that you’re someone who really cares about other people’s needs.”
A couple of weeks later, when the kids were brought in and asked to engage in a task involving sharing, the kids whose character had been praised were much more generous than they had been the first time they shared. Telling them that they did something good because of who they are helped them internalize the view of themselves as the sort of person who is good or generous or caring. And they then acted in accordance with this understanding of themselves. So, don’t hesitate to tell your child that the good things he or she does come from the fact that he or she is a good person.
Of course, you have to praise actual good things they. Just telling your kid that he is good and kind while he sucks down a gogurt in front of a video isn’t actually going to make him a good and kind person. Calling him thoughtful and generous for offering his little sister a taste of his gogurt after she squirted hers all over the couch will help, though.