Sunday, February 06, 2011

Spare the rod, teach the child

Dale McGowan, editor and co-author of Parenting Beyond Belief, raised an interesting point in this Reasonable Doubts podcast when asked about the difficulties of teaching moral thinking to children in a non-religious household (time stamp: 54:00). McGowan states that his approach is to provide his children with the right to know the reasons for the rules, the right to ask why something is the case. For example, if he asks his children to go to bed at 8:00PM, they have the right to stand their ground and first ask “why”, and he must provide them with a reason. This method of moral teaching is in stark contrast to authoritarianism, where children should follow the rules because “dad says so”.

According to McGowan, moral development research shows that thinking critically about rules creates far more powerful moral reasoners; kids are far more likely to generate better rules for themselves if they learn and understand the reasons behind why something is right or wrong, rather than by simply following orders.

McGowan mentions a book by Samuel and Pearl Oliner, called The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. The Oliners conducted 700 interviews in order to answer an important question: why did some people (the 'rescuers') in Nazi Europe risk their lives to help Jews, while others (the 'non-rescuers') stood passively by, doing nothing?

One of the fascinating conclusions of their study was that the person’s willingness to assist Jews in need was, among other reasons, determined by the type of moral upbringing they received from their parents. Rescuers were more likely to have had parents who depended on moral reasoning rather than physical punishment to teach concepts of right and wrong. Non-rescuers, however, were more likely to have grown up in households where authoritarianism was prominent.

From page 179:

Parents whose disciplinary techniques are benevolent, particularly those who rely on reasoning, are more likely to have kind and generous children, children who behave helpfully with respect to others . . . inductive reasoning is particularly conductive to altruism. Induction forces children’s attention on the consequences of their behaviors for others, drawing attention to other’s feelings, thoughts and welfare.

A similar conclusion was reached in a separate, but similar study:

Most rescuers had compassionate and loving families. Their parents taught them the difference between right and wrong through logic-based decision making rather than authoritatively forcing the decision on them.

Studies like these highlight the importance of moral reasoning in developing kindness, generosity and alturism in children.


Shirley said...

As one who loves Jesus Christ and His absolute truth, I find myself in agreement with what you shared. It is the passage about sparing the rod that has been so horribly misinterpreted and that has also been so influential in turning people away from Jesus. Nowhere in His scriptures do you find anything that would even hint at hitting or slapping a child; all you find there is that Jesus had time for everyone ... most importantly, the children.

The Church has totally screwed up in her teaching on parenting and many people for many generations have and are still paying the price. Authoritarianism has absolutely no place in the life of one who believes in Jesus ... and yet, too many Christians continue to ignore who Jesus really is; if they did, we would have many more compassionate rescuers than we have people who are shoving a gospel down people's throats ... a gospel that is not at all reflective of Jesus. How sad.

Erin said...

I've never thought myself capable of hitting a child (I suppose we won't know until I have any!), and find that I do lean towards explanations and reasoning, anyway. I've always seen it as part of enriching the child's cognitive development.

However, I have an entirely different opinion on how to handle a child who blatantly disobeys, once all the reasoning is done. Example of this is tantrums in shopping malls: a child is screaming at the top of his or her lungs - no tears, just screaming - and the parent tries to handle the situation by ignoring the child. The child attempts to bend the parent to his or her will, and the parent, by ignoring, is offering resistence. I feel strongly about it that this is wrong of the parent: the child should not even be given the chance to challenge the parent for authority. In this situation, my own mother pulled us aside, gave us a stinging whopper on the bum and waited until we relented to stop the tantrum. This worked wonderfully. I will do it with my own children.

So, on reasoning and explaining as a starting point, I agree fully. As to blatant disobedience thereafter, a good spanking is in order!