Raising Moral Kids Pt. 2

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. Continue reading

Raising Moral Kids, Pt 1

I thought this was a great article in the NYT about what researchers have to say about raising moral kids. A lot of it is stuff we all know is true (but hope we can find a way around). So it’s interesting to learn that some of our old parenting gems aren’t just theoretically true, but that they’ve been proven true as well. Which is particularly comforting for some of us who went against the grain, did these things and discovered that raising a good person doesn’t automatically turn them into leaders of industry. Those are two different skills sets, it turns out.

Anyhow, the article covered a lot of ground, but I have a take-away I wanted to pass on today and one more for tomorrow. And one more the day after that. I decided that two 2000 word posts in one day might be a bit much, so I’m splitting it up.

Besides, it’s an important topic. I genuinely believe that the way we raise our kids is what will ultimately change the world. For my part, I believe that raising kind, caring, moral children should be just as important as raising kids who can get into college. Or who can still find her purity ring to wear home from college. More important, really. But if we believe that, we have to live it. So, here’s today’s research-supported bit of parenting wisdom:

Your kids will do what you do, not what you say.

I know, crazy, right? Who knew? It’s not like every single one of us is walking around feeling guilty as hell knowing that our kids will inevitably struggle with many of the same imperfections as we do. And that I am completely helpless to stop it because I am simply not capable of being perfect enough to keep it from happening. So I lie to myself and think, “they’ll take my advice rather than following my instructions. After all, why would they want to end up like me? That’s got to be a powerful deterrent, right?”. . . Or maybe that’s just me. It’s probably just me.

Anyway, the good news is that what you do right has more power than you probably realized. Continue reading

Exegesis and Why Noah Isn’t a Jewish Hero

So . . . heard any good exegesis lately? What’s an exegesis, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t ask. Too bad. I’m going to tell you anyways.) Exegesis is simply the practice of explaining a section of text from the bible. So, a lot of sermons include exegesis because they start with the text and then offer an explanation as to their meaning.

A good exegesis is a thing to make the heart sing. My favorite are the ones that show you something in the text you never noticed or understood before. Typically these explanations draw on what the preacher knows about the history, the cultures involved, the language and nuances which aren’t clear in translation, other Christian’s interpretations, the text’s relationship with other texts. It should also be spiritually astute. And it should always be humble enough to offer a possible way to read the text, not the only possible way. That’s not asking much, now is it?

I’m not sure that the wider public really appreciates what it takes to teach (or explain or exegete) scripture well. But even a two bit preacher with no education and terrible theology has devoted more time to studying scripture than the average person has ever devoted to any idea in their life. Obviously, this is no barrier to preaching some really stupid, dull and idiotic stuff from the pulpit. But we’re all merely human. We’ll have to trust that God can get it all sorted out eventually.

One of the things I’m going to start doing is passing along clips of really good exegesis that I come across. Because I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’ll like them as much as I do. Because we’re geeky like that. No, actually because they’re really good. And if you have to be geeky to see that, so be it.

Anyhow, I’ll just start with the insight of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the role, character of and errors of Noah in the bible (it’s not your typical exegesis, I suppose. But close enough):

the principal distinction between Noah on one hand and Moses and Abraham on the other is that Noah accepts God’s judgement. . .

Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. Continue reading

Raising a bunch of characters

In his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt talks about the difference between situational ethics and an ethic built on internal character.  Situational ethics is pretty much what it sounds like: looking at a situation and trying to apply ethical thinking to it.  It says, “in this situation, what is the right thing to do.”  He then compares this to an older sort of ethics which is based on character.  This sort of ethics says, “in this situation, what does a good person do.”

There are several problems with situational ethics.  First of all, how do we know what the right thing to do is?  What are the standards?  Do we value justice higher than mercy?  Personal autonomy higher than the good of the community?  Situational ethics also struggles with the fact that sometimes the same actions are morally different.  So at my son’s school, it is considered sexual harassment to ask someone for a hug.  Why?  Because there are times when it may be sexual harassment and sorting out when it is and when it isn’t is too difficult and subjective so they just ban asking for hugs.  The final problem with situational ethics is that it tends to be very specific to the situation at hand and offers little guidance for other situations – even when they are variations on a theme.  So, asking for a hug has been declared sexual harassment, but what about hand holding?  Horny kids making out in the halls?  What if standing back-to-back and bobbing up and down becomes the thing and some kids end up making it a booty-rub – is that sexual harassment or kids being ridiculous?

An ethic based on good character is a much better alternative, but here again, we have problems.   Surprisingly, we pretty much agree on what good character looks like – kindness, fairness, courage, responsibility, awareness of other’s feelings, etc.  The problem is that we humans can be shockingly bad at understanding what these traits look like in practice.  Thus we had generations of good, loving family people who were also virulent racists who willfully inflicted suffering on their fellow humans.  Which is how situational ethics gained the upper hand in the first place.

One of the things I have become more aware of with age is that we humans pretty much know how things ought to be, but we often don’t actually know how to execute well.  But we rarely admit our ignorance – to ourselves or anyone else.  But the reality is that we’re supposed to be learning both as individuals and as humanity as a whole.  We don’t have all the answers and we never did.

I believe that whatever culture-wide problems we face must be addressed first within our own hearts and families before they can be properly addressed elsewhere.  This is where the Christian notion of being in but not of the world around us becomes very important, I think.  As long as we are making our choices based on what it takes to get by in the world we live in, the culture will not change.  And as much as we try to teach our children to do the right things, they will see us making our own choices based on the culture we live in and do likewise.  And that is how we have this endless cycle of humans knowing what right and wrong are supposed to be, but having no idea how to actually do it.  In order for the culture to change, we must change.  We need to understand that we are actually creating the world we live in through the choices that we make.  If we are harsh and unyielding, we are helping create a culture that is harsh and unyielding.  If we are firm but forgiving, we are helping create a culture that is also firm but forgiving.  We have to get it out of our heads that we’re just trying to get by in this world and firmly embrace our responsibility for creating and shaping this world.  The first (and often the only) step is to be the sort of person we’d like to see this world modeled after.

The second step is teaching our kids to be the sort of people that we’d like to see the world modeled after.  Which is where our fight against situational ethics really gets going.  I have seen with my own kids that there is a tremendous disconnect between who my kids desire to be and perhaps even think of themselves as being and how they actually behave.  All of my kids will tell you that family is very important to them and that they should be nice to everyone.  And all of that goes right out the window when a toy is desired by more than one person or a sibling is demanding attention at an inopportune time.  When I stop them and point out the lack of love, patience, kindness, etc, I am invariably met with “yeah but . . .” followed by a detailed description of the situation that they want fixed.  “Yes, I told her she was stupid and not my friend anymore but she won’t let me see that toy.”  IOW, fix the situation and then I can be loving and kind and patient.  Situational ethics!

As a parent, it’s very easy to get pulled into this sort of conflict.  After all, sharing and not being super annoying are also important things to learn.  So, often we do just what the child demands: fix the situation.  What I am learning to do more and more is to refuse to fix the situation.  I will take the child who is demanding that things be set right and ask them to display love, patience, kindness, forgiveness or whatever character trait we both want them to have.  Which is hard for them.  After all, often they are in the right!  But the other thing I ask them to do is trust that God knew what he was talking about when he said to be kind, loving, forgiving, etc.  Which is often even harder.  Because God’s ways don’t often get the immediate results that situational ethics do.  if I just insist that the toy be shared, it gets shared.  If I ask the other person to back off, wait and find something else to do, it could be hours before they get their turn.  But over time what is happening is that each person learns that refusing to share also means they have traded time with a human being they love for more time with a piece of plastic.  And sharing problems work themselves out more quickly.  And when a sibling doesn’t have to be super annoying to get your attention, they often skip being super annoying altogether.  It’s interesting to watch it work out because God’s ways do work.  Just not right away.  Which is good preparation for the life of faith that my children and I desire for their lives.

One of the other interesting things that I have found is that often my kids mean to be good, loving people, but have no idea what that actually looks like.  In the past, I would find myself scolding a child for not being kind or considerate and they would respond, “sorry” and mean it, but do the same thing next time.  I wasn’t following the good parenting adage that telling a kid what not to do isn’t enough – you have to tell them what to do instead.  So now, instead of scolding I will often say, “a more loving way to handle that would be to . . . (fill in the blank).”  If the kid apologizes I will actually tell them, “don’t be sorry.  I just know you want to be a loving person and probably hadn’t thought of that before (or forgot).”  Later, if the kid starts to pick up their old way of dealing with a situation, I might gently remind them that there’s a better way of handling it.  Which will often prompt a response of “yeah but” and we go back to the last paragraph.

It takes more work and more patience than just stepping in and setting everything right, but building character takes time.

This seems creepy to me

There’s a story in the Chicago Tribune about scientists who have figured out how to get a computer to “read” brain scans to figure out which picture out of several choices a person has viewed.  This is considered one of the first steps towards eventually figuring out how the brain works, which I suppose if good.  However, it could also the be the first step towards creating machines able to mind read, which I think is creepy.

What I find both worrying and fascinating about these sort of things is how to handle the concern that we will use technology to create possibilities which are clearly immoral.  The idea of creating genetically engineered people would be an example of this.  Creating a mind reading machine would be another.  Hopefully, we’re not so far gone that many people actually think it would be OK to genetically engineer people or to use mind reading machines on people.  But how long will that be the case?  If we keep pursuing the technology which will allow us to do these things, at some point the taboo will fail and what is today unthinkable will become normalized.  So do we willingly restrict ourselves from going places scientifically and technologically to avoid falling into a moral morass?  This seems to go against the nature of our culture and society which has thrived on technological advances.

What I am afraid of is that we will see where we are going, know that it will be a disaster and do nothing to avert it because prohibiting technological advances is just such a foreign idea that we won’t be able to accept it.