Why is it So Hard to Get Kids To Do the Right Thing? (VIDEO)

If children are born with a sense of right and wrong, as brain science shows, why don't they just do the right thing?

Part of the reason it's tough is that the moment children observe bad behavior, they have learned it. Even if the bad behavior is punished, it remains easily accessible in the child's brain. Psychologist Albert Bandura was able to show this with help from a clown.

In the 1960s, Bandura showed preschoolers a film involving a Bobo doll, one of those inflatable plastic clowns weighted on the bottom. In the film, an adult named Susan kicks and punches the doll, then repeatedly clobbers it with a hammer. After the film, the preschoolers are taken into another room filled with toys, including (surprise) a Bobo doll and a toy hammer.

What do the children do? It depends. If they saw a version of the film where Susan was praised for her violent actions, they hit the doll with great frequency. If they saw a version where Susan got punished, they hit Bobo with less frequency. But if Bandura then strides into the room and says, "I will give you a reward if you can repeat what you saw Susan do," the children will pick up a hammer and start swinging at Bobo.

Whether the children saw the violence as rewarded or punished, they learned the behavior. Bandura calls this "observational learning," and his finding is an extraordinary weapon of mass instruction. Observational learning plays a powerful role in moral reasoning.

How does moral reasoning develop? Slowly. Harvard psychologist Kohlberg believed that moral reasoning depended upon general cognitive maturity--another way of saying that these things take time. He outlined a progressive process:

1. Avoiding punishment. Moral reasoning starts out at a fairly primitive level, focused mostly on avoiding punishment. Kohlberg calls this stage pre-conventional moral reasoning.

2. Considering consequences. As a child's mind develops, she begins to consider the social consequences of her behaviors and starts to modify them accordingly. Kohlberg terms this conventional moral reasoning.

3. Acting on principle. Eventually, the child begins to base her behavioral choices on well-thought-out, objective moral principles, not just on avoidance of punishment or peer acceptance. Kohlberg calls this coveted stage post-conventional moral reasoning. One could argue that the goal of any parent is to land here.

This willingness to make the right choices--and to withstand pressure to make the wrong ones, even when the possibility of detection and punishment is zero--is the goal of moral development. We parents use rules and discipline, of course, to get our children to this stage.

In my book "Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to 5," I discuss the research-tested strategies that parents can use to aid moral development. At the end of the book, I gather practical tips, including these two:

CAP your rules

Discipline FIRST

Need one more? Read "A Magic Trick for Getting Kids to Follow Rules."

Watch more parenting videos or learn more about your baby's brain at brainrules.net.


Cindy said...

But it is so rewarding when you finally get them to behave.

chefgirl2004 said...

Another great Brain Rules for Baby article! This book has been so helpful in raising my daughter, especially in the toddler years! 3 1/2 was rough for us. But I have applied everything you have suggested the book and it has worked and been so rewarding. Helped me as a mom to know who I am and to know who my daughter is and where her mind is also. I believe every single parent needs this book, so helpful when there isn't another person there to help.

livingindarwin said...

What if landing there is not the goal? What if a deeply felt set of black and white 'moral' principles might lead to prejudice, a lack of tolerance, and seeing social situations as 'good people like me' vs 'bad people like them', with opportunities for winning and losing rather than working collaboratively?

My parenting goals are that my child:
- develops a strong sense of empathy and the impact of her actions on others;
- recognises and accepts her own feelings;
- can reason logically and think laterally;
- learns to listen and communicate with a wide variety of people; and
- looks for creative and constructive ways of handling situations that accommodates everyone's needs if possible.

My husband and I are really wary of punishing our child in a way that does not embody the rationale behind stopping the behaviour, because we think this sends mixed messages. For example: 'Stop banging that cupboard or you won't get dessert' sends the message 'I don't like your behaviour' but also 'when you don't like a behaviour it is appropriate to threaten another person to make them pay for it in some unrelated way'. This seems to me to logically follow from you explanation of way a child learns observationally.

As a parent, I'd rather the second message I send to my kid to be 'when you don't like a behaviour of someone around you, you should try and think of alternative behaviours that will satisfy everyone's needs, if possible'. As our baby is only 20mo, her own problem-solving skills are limited, so we might say something like: 'Banging that cupboard is noisy and it hurts my ears. You can play with the cupboard quietly or you can go outside and bang things where it won't hurt my ears.' and if she keeps banging the cupboard, interact with her to make sure she's comprehended the nature of the choice (eg. get her to demonstrate 'quietly'), and if that still leads to cupboard-banging, gently move her outside and show her something she can bang. Once she gets a bit older, we'll prompt her to think of more of the alternatives herself, and we'll be able to listen to her explain what she wants and what she's feeling.

Are you aware of any research on the relationship between moral rules, problem solving, and pro-social behaviour?

Allena said...

My children are somewhat older than most examples here and on this page, but I do want to say two related things: 1)Kohlberg's model doesn't say that all people eventually attain those higher levels (although the scientist has them numbered at 1-3, there are actually 2 stages in each so 1-6). So, in fact, many people stop developing at around level 4 (which I THINK happens to be the 'laws of society' one- I follow the law and desire others to do so also, so that we are all safe). However, this is actually a low level of moral functioning.

2) SO my second comment is that I agree with livingdarwin in that I sincerely hope that my children's moral and values are developed at a much higher level. There is NOT black and white good and bad, and the laws of our society (any society) are not perfect AT ALL. I will consider myself a failure as a parent if my child's moral choices are based on what the law says, or didactics like "good" and "bad."

Just something to think about for those just starting off in this journey. Mine are 9 and 12 and so far so good. I am starting to see the level 5 development in my oldest especially.