Being human together. Showing up for what matters.

A recent New York Times article “Raising a Moral Child” by Adam Grant went viral last month.  In it, he summarised a 1980 study on altruism development in children:

“Psychologist J. Philippe Rushton gave 140 elementary- and middle-school-age children tokens for winning a game, which they could keep entirely or donate some to a child in poverty. They first watched a teacher figure play the game either selfishly or generously, and then preach to them the value of taking, giving or neither… When the adult behaved selfishly, children followed suit. The words didn’t make much difference — children gave fewer tokens after observing the adult’s selfish actions, regardless of whether the adult verbally advocated selfishness or generosity. When the adult acted generously, students gave the same amount whether generosity was preached or not — they donated 85 percent more than the norm in both cases. When the adult preached selfishness, even after the adult acted generously, the students still gave 49 percent more than the norm. Children learn generosity not by listening to what their role models say, but by observing what they do.

To test whether these role-modeling effects persisted over time, two months later researchers observed the children playing the game again… The most generous children were those who watched the teacher give but not say anything. Two months later, these children were 31 percent more generous than those who observed the same behavior but also heard it preached… If you don’t model generosity, preaching it may not help in the short run, and in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.”

Although Rushton also had some rather controversial views on race that I don’t share, this particular study fascinates me and I keep being drawn to how else we can apply this learning to our parenting (beyond teaching our children generosity).

From the simple to the complex, some areas we can reflect on:

  • If I expect my children to come to ME if they need help rather than shouting for me from their bedroom, what am I teaching them when I holler through the house for them?
  • If I want my children to demonstrate respect towards me, how does my yelling at them impact on this?  If I want them to regulate their own emotions, what am I modelling about how to do this when I feel angry at them?
  • If I want my children to “face” their fears and try new things, what do I model when my anxiety shows up?
  • If I want my children to make healthy food and drink choices, and/or be physically active, what example am I setting?
  • If I want a close relationship with my children when they become adults, what am I demonstrating about how to have an adult relationship with my own parents?  With my in-laws?

Folks, I’m so excited at finally writing a SHORT post – I’m going to go ahead and hit “publish” before it hits 500 words!

Let me know what you think 🙂

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  1. I am so far behind on my reading, but interested in what you said (back in July)…
    I can’t agree that you are doing harm by feeling what you feel, (eg angry, etc). If we try to suppress ourselves we may harm children more by teaching them to suppress themselves (‘just like mum does’). Modelling appropriate expression of our feelings, by not resorting to yelling, etc, but by showing the control and expression we want from children (& others we interact with) I agree with… and I assume/hope that is what you actually meant to express, given the good advice you give.

    1. Sorry for the confusion – I completely agree, no good comes from suppressing emotions! We have very little control over our emotions – they show up uninvited, but with really useful information. Suppressing them is exhausting and diverts us away from whatever is happening in the moment. However, as you point out, we do have control over how we behave when we experience our emotions. I hope I can model to my kids how to OWN their emotion, rather than being OWNED BY their emotion. We are absolutely on the same page – but thank you so much for clarifying!

  2. Wow that makes so much sense. I really need to stop yelling from the kitchen! And that explains why I’m so much like my mother even though I try to fight it!

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