Parenting: Knowing right from wrong

November 16, 2010

We've been talking for a few weeks about what to do to raise a smart, happy baby. Author John Medina concludes his bestseller, BRAIN RULES FOR BABY, with a fascinating chapter on how to raise a child with a sense of justice, thoughtfulness and emotional sensibilities.

What's neat is that Medina says children's brains are preloaded at birth with some limited moral sensibilities which either develop (or not) depending on how they're raised. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom agrees with him, saying those sensitivities include a willingness and ability to judge another person's behavior. And cognitive scientist Steven Pinker adds this: "We are born with a universal moral grammar that forces us to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure." There's even a Moral Sense Test that Harvard researchers have developed that countless people in 120 countries have taken showing the innateness of morality. In fact, experts break the distinctions between right and wrong into 5 categories: fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, spiritual purity and harm.

So if children are born pre-wired to be good and kind, why don't they always grow up that way?

Scientists say it is surprisingly hard to connect the dots of human altruism and to have children develop a conscience that kicks in even when there's no possibility of being punished or found out. Self-control in the face of anonymity is also called inhibitory control, and it's an important tool to develop in your child because it also relates to their ability to have a well-developed executive function or take a leadership role later in life.

How do you help your child grow a conscience? Part of it comes with time and experience, but setting a good example as an adult is key, especially when it comes to lying. Medina explains that children learn quickly to pass the blame and lie when they sense they'll get in trouble for telling the truth. By age 4, a child will lie once every 2 hours; by age 6 it's once every 1.5 hours. If you tolerate the lies or your child sees you lying to other people regularly, he or she will internalize the idea that a person needs to do what they can to wiggle out of a bad situation. Eventually the child will base his or her behavioral choices on other things besides punishment. However, it may be too late to undo the "lying" damage.

Again, your style of responding is key. With a cool head and a kind heart, you should explain why lying is hurtful and harmful and therefore unacceptable. You should give your child clear expectations and consistent rewards. If you ask who broke the tea pitcher, and you get an honest answer, you should tell your child how proud you are of them for telling the truth and reward them for their honesty instead of getting angry about the broken glass. If your child or children broke a rule and caused the tea pitcher incident (maybe the rule is: don't go in the fridge without an adult's help), then you should explain why you have the rule, write it down on a chart with other reasonable expectations (bedtime, chores, etc.). Medina says you need to be warm and accepting when you explain the rules. Strength can be quiet and calm, it doesn't have to be loud, pushy or mean-spirited. A Child always needs to feel safe when hearing the rules, seeing the rules in action and certainly when being punished under the rules.

Medina also says you should use the punishment (taking away a toy, taking away a privilege). It should happen quickly - no waiting hours or days until "your father comes home," or until the weekend. Kids learn most quickly when the punishment is immediate but fair and calmly done. Finally you must be consistent. It doesn't work if you punish one week for an infraction, then skip it the next time.

And Medina is adamantly opposed to spanking, and I agree. I've never spanked my child. I don't even use yelling. At our house, the toys get a time out, the child gets a time out, or I'll even leave the room if I'm playing with my children and give them a no-mommy period of playing alone to reinforce a point (after the age where they're safe in the room alone of course.)

Some final tips that are priceless to wrap up this wonderful book... that's next week!

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