Parenting by explanation

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I ran into a super interesting study the other day in an almost as interesting book called Originals by Adam Grant. That’s not a subtle dig, the book is really good, but the study is incredibly interesting. It was published in 1992 as The Altruistic Personality by Samuel and Pearl Oliner.

The Oliners wanted to find out what drove non-Jews to risk their lives to aid and hide Jews during the Nazi rein in Europe. What was the difference between those who stuck out their necks and those who sat passively by? These people shared similar careers, lived in the same neighborhoods, attended the same schools, etc. They shared much in common, but one of the most significant differences the Oliners found involved how they were raised. The rescuers often used the word ‘explained’ to characterize their parent’s method of parenting. When they were disciplined or reprimanded, their parents tended to explain why what they did was wrong and how their actions affected other people. The explanations were good for a few things: 1) The explanations fostered values. An explanation can tie behavior to identity, a good person can’t steal toys and make other kids feel bad. Instead of a focus on rote compliance, the focus is on forming identities. 2) Explanations treat children as rational people with the ability to make choices and changes. Instead of demanding obedience, explanations help children see their need and ability to take responsibility for their own actions.

For those who risked their lives to save others during the Nazzi occupation, explanations from their parents had shifted their risk calculation from one of cost versus benefits to one of weighing values. If the cost versus benefit equation was utmost, there’s no question it would have made more sense to stay on the sidelines during the Nazi occupation. The risk was literally death. But if the calculation was one of personal values and identity, it becomes nearly impossible to sit idly by while fellow humans suffer injustice.

So next time your child makes a mistake or acts out or generally struggles with disobedience, talk to them when you discipline them. Help them see how their actions affect other people. Use language that addresses their identity (who they want to be) instead of purely focusing on the act (what they did). Turns out parenting is pretty important, and an explanation from a parent can go a long way.

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