All parents hope to raise children that have good moral values. But, how does one do it? The short answer to that question has to do with they way a parent praises a child for doing good things. The words you use make a huge difference!
Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a very detailed piece for the New York Times called “Raising a Moral Child”. In it, he explains the results of different studies that tried to discern what parents could do to raise a moral child.
In the article, he noted that children experience some moral emotions by age 2. In other words, they will have feelings that are triggered by right or wrong. Let’s say you catch your 2 year old doing something good. How should you, the parent, respond?
There are two prevailing views. One is to offer a reward for the good deed. Your child will receive a sticker, a cookie, or some other tangible reward as the result of having done something good. Another option is to offer only praise (but no physical reward).
Which is more effective? According to the article, research indicates that praise is more effective than rewards. Praising the child for his or her good action shows that the action is intrinsically worthwhile for its own sake. Offering a reward, on the other hand, comes with a risk. You could end up sending the message that it is only worth it to preform a good action when there is a reward being offered for having done it.
What kind of praise is the most effective for raising a moral child? Various studies mentioned in the article by Adam Grant come to the same conclusion. Praise the child’s character – not the action itself. An example of praising the action would be “That was nice when you helped clean up”. An example of praising the child’s character is “You are a helpful person”.
This allows the child to begin to identify himself or herself as being a helpful person. Being helpful becomes part of how they see themselves. One study found that an effective way to get kids who are between the ages of 3 and 6 to help with a tasks is to encourage them to “be a helper” instead of inviting them to help clean up the toys they were playing with.
Image by Ben Grey on Flickr.