Ratbag or model citizen? And is behaviour a result of nurture or nature? Psychologist Dr Melanie Woodfield considers these big questions facing parents, and shares tips on shaping our children into the well-rounded individuals society smiles upon.
No parent wants to raise a ratbag. Ideally, we want to be known as the parents of "that lovely Samuel", rather than the child people talk about after we've left the party for all the wrong reasons. Chances are, "lovely Samuel" could also be described as "well-rounded", a phrase most of us would be proud to have our children described as. But before we embark on the task of crafting our own positive wee contribution to society, we need to clarify what is meant by the rather nebulous aim of well-rounded.
Firstly, we're talking metaphorically well-rounded, not literally (as in, a euphemism for a "cuddly" or "tubby" child). Secondly, well-rounded does not necessarily mean well-behaved. True, a well-rounded child is likely to behave well a lot of the time, but the two are not synonymous. Well-rounded is more than simply compliance.
We're also not talking about the kind of well-roundedness that features in many a school report, referring to a child who simultaneously engages in ballet, chess, kapa haka, and pottery. Perhaps it helps to define the opposite of well-rounded- think unfeeling, self-focused, callous, unremorseful, vindictive, ruthless, and rude, to name a few undesirable traits. Instead, we're aiming for children who are kind, compassionate, caring, ethical, moral, and generous. Overall, a child who is balanced, kind and generous without being naïve, and ethical without being irritating. A tall order!
Of course, well-rounded can mean different things to different people.
One's culture, gender and age can influence this - your child's grandmother might add "good manners" to the list of qualities possessed by a well-rounded child, while your younger brother might view your son as well-rounded if he has a good knowledge of video games.
While the debate continues to rage over whether a child's well-roundedness is determined by their genes or how they are raised, most accept that a combination of nature and nurture is involved. In other words, our parenting behaviour can make a difference. If you're interested enough in your child's well-being to sit down and read an article like this, chances are you're doing just fine as a parent, so relax! Don't stop reading, though, as you'll hopefully pick up a few tips or tricks. There are no guarantees, but here are a few basic things you can do to improve your chances of being invited back to that party.
Do as I say, not as I do
Nice try, Mum and Dad, but kids almost always do as you do, not as you say. Many a child psychologist's notebook contains the following kind of conversation:
Parent 1: "I wish we could f@&#!n stop him from f@&#!n swearing all the time!"
Parent 2: "I f@&#!n agree."
Psychologist: "Ah, right…"
No matter how many times you emphasise the importance of a particular behaviour or quality to your children, if you're not displaying it yourself, they won't do it. This goes for both deliberate and inadvertent contradictory behaviour. Think how often we tell children it's important to love themselves for who they are - we read them stories that promote good self-esteem, say encouraging things to them, and correct any negative self-statements they make. What we often fail to notice, however, is the number of times we let slip with comments like, "I shouldn't eat that, I'll get fat" (the unspoken implication being that "fat" is not okay), or "I hate my (insert body part here)".
It's a cliché, but children are metaphorical sponges who soak up the good and the bad. This applies to each of the qualities that make up a well-rounded child. We may repeatedly rant to our children about the importance of generosity, but don't think for a minute that their attentive eyes will miss you asking for change from a $5 note for that ANZAC poppy gold-coin donation.
So start displaying the qualities you want your child to display. Yes, it's hard work, but it's worth it. Talk though issues and concerns with your children - the older they are, the more they will appreciate your honesty about the challenges of being well-rounded. For example, "Mummy really wants to be helpful and pick up that rubbish, but she's in a rush to get home. What do you think we should do?" this kind of commentary lets older children know that, as humans, we do have competing demands, and we regularly face ethical dilemmas. explaining your thought process can illustrate practical problem-solving skills and show your child that, in the end, it's important for our values to guide our decisions. "I feel really good that we decided to pick up the rubbish. Being helpful to others feels good. Let's run home instead of walking so we can still be on time."
Establish explicit family values
Parents can value different things. Your culture, gender, age, and socio-economic background can all influence the values you convey to your children. Mum might value kindness, gentleness, and tidiness, while Dad might place more value on physical strength and endurance. These are obviously generalisations, but illustrate the tension that can result from valuing different things. There's usually no quick fix here - generally speaking, you can't decide to hold certain values (well, you can decide to, but actually putting these into practice is often a different kettle of fish!), but it's very important to be aware of the differences in what you value as individuals, and the impact this can have on teaching values to your children.
If you are able to reach some sort of agreement (or if you agree to disagree), perhaps try a sit-down family discussion about what qualities are important to you as a family. This could be done in a deliberate manner, such as a family meeting, or in a more informal way - perhaps a casual discussion about values raised in a television programme. You could even write your family values down and display them somewhere prominent. Your children may be surprised to learn that you value their kindness to each other more than a tidy room (but tidy rooms are still important!).
While you might feel a bit square at first, Parents Inc founders Ian and Mary Grant's oft-touted phrases such as "In our family we (insert appropriate value/behaviour here)…" really do have a place, and could serve as a good reminder of your family values session. An example might be, "In our family, we are generous with our money", coupled with a donation to a charity or church group. When Junior refuses to give his sister 20c so she can buy that sweetie, remind him with a prompt, "remember, in our family we…" sister may then need a prompt of her own: "remember, we're also polite and thankful in our family." As with many strategies, there is such a thing as too much, so use wisely.
Even if your children are still "premoral", you are their moral compass, pointing them in the direction of what's appropriate. Those gentle prompts may seem to go in one ear and out the other, but they are paving the way for the well-rounded child of the future, and are well worth your time and effort.
Once children reach preschool, they are exposed to the morals, values, and beliefs of the adults who care for them, so it's important to select a preschool or caregivers whose values align with your own.
As children age, values are often introduced into their formal school curriculum. An example of this is "The Virtues Project", an initiative which began in 1991 and involves each school selecting key virtues from a selection of 52 values. The literature on their website (www.virtuesproject.org.nz ) provides more detail, if you're interested.
An example of key virtues that a school might deem relevant include: Caring, Cleanliness, Confdence, Cooperation, Courtesy, Courage, Creativity, Excellence, Friendliness, Helpfulness, Honesty, Justice, Loyalty, Patience, Perserverance, Reliability, Resilience, Respect, Responsibility, and Tolerance. Schools then introduce the concepts into formal and informal teaching; for example, asking children, "In what way could you show caring towards your classmates?" Many schools emphasise that the project is not about having control over children, but giving children the skills to have control over themselves.
Spotlight on morality
Most of us appreciate the characteristics of a well-rounded child, but it may be useful to explore what we mean by morality, or ethical behaviour. Generally, morality refers to the extent to which someone is aware of right behaviour versus wrong behaviour. Most of us know, without having to be formally taught, that it is wrong to take someone else's life, for example. Even the most damaged of individuals, at some level, know that this is not okay. How do we come to know this? Two of the most influential theorists in this area are Jean Piaget (a Frenchman who lived 1896-1980), and Lawrence Kohlberg, who came along later and refined and extended Piaget's work.
Piaget and Kohlberg agree that children under five years old are premoral. In other words, kids evaluate their behaviour on the basis of personal outcomes, without any concept of right and wrong. They have little awareness of social rules, and are not concerned that there are no rules. In a game of snap or "Duck, Duck, Goose", children under five don't usually play systematically with the intent of winning, but seem to make up their own rules, thinking that the point of the game is to have fun and take turns.
Between the ages of five and 10, children enter a new stage, which Piaget called heteronomous morality. In this stage, kids generally have a strong respect for rules, and view rules made by adults as sacred and unchangeable, regardless of the circumstances. For example, it's not okay to break the speed limit, even if it's an emergency. As part of the research behind his moral theory, Piaget presented children with a series of scenarios:
Story A: A little boy who is called John is in his room. He is called to dinner. He goes into the dining room. But behind the door there was a chair, and on the chair there was a tray with 15 cups on it. John couldn't have known that there was all this behind the door. He goes in, the door knocks against the tray, bang go the 15 cups, and they all get broken.
Story B: Once there was a little boy whose name was Henry. One day when his mother was out he tried to reach some jam out of the cupboard. He climbed onto a chair and stretched out his arm. But the jam was too high up, and he couldn't reach it… While he was trying to get it, he knocked over a cup. The cup fell down and broke. (Piaget, 1932/1965, p.122; cited in shaffer, 1999)
After hearing the scenarios, the children were asked questions like, "Which child is naughtier? Why?" Piaget found that five- to 10-year-old children were likely to judge the naughtiness of an action by the actual consequences, not by the person's intention - in other words, many of these children said that John was naughtier, because he broke 15 cups, despite Henry's darker intention.
Poor old John will be relieved to hear that when children reach approximately 10 or 11, in Piaget's autonomous morality stage, they realise that social rules can be challenged, and even changed on occasion. They also see it as okay to break rules in the service of human need (e.g. speeding in an emergency). In Piaget's research, 10-year-olds reliably said that Henry, who broke one cup while stealing jam, was naughtier than John, who broke 15 cups while going to dinner.
There are gender and cultural differences within moral behaviour. Boys and girls value different things when deciding how "moral" an act was. Carol Gilligan (1982) found that in younger children, girls tended to be more concerned with a morality based on caring, or actions that enhance, or are appropriate, within personal relationships. Young boys are generally more concerned with justice-based morality, or the degree to which actions conform to socially-agreed rules.
Richard Shweder, Manamahan Mahapatra, and Joan Miller presented 39 acts to children and adults in India and the USA. Three of the acts included:
• A young married woman is beaten black-and-blue by her husband after going to a movie without his permission, despite having been warned not to do so again.
• A brother and sister decide to get married and have children.
• The day after his father died, the eldest son in a family has a haircut
and eats chicken.
Interestingly, Hindu children and adults rated the son having a haircut and eating chicken after his father's death as one of the more offensive acts of the 39 rated, and the husband beating his wife as not wrong at all. Americans viewed the domestic violence as far more serious. Although both cultures agreed that sibling marriage was immoral, they agreed on little else.
Hopefully you've found dipping your toes into the vast ocean of morality theory interesting. Hopefully you've also discovered, or been reminded, that showing yourself to be well-rounded is the most effective way to encourage your child to be well-rounded. The strategies outlined above are worth the effort, but remember, overall, children do as we do, not as we say. This means hard work on our part, but our children, grandchildren (and our society) will be better off if we make the effort.
Melanie Woodfield is a clinical psychologist and mother of two.