The XX Factor

How Do I Teach My Kid to Be Good? By Telling Him He Is Good.

Don’t have the words? Being generous is a great way to raise a generous child.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

That parents should praise a kid’s actions rather than her innate qualities is parenting gospel. Studies find that children who are lauded for their intelligence develop weaker work ethics than those who get cheered on for their persistence. The same logic would seem to apply for instilling morality in kids: Praise your child for her good deeds, and she will continue to do them. Except, as Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times this past weekend, it doesn’t exactly work like that.

Grant explains why treating your child like an ethical person is more inspiring than just singling out a praiseworthy bit of behavior: “When our actions become a reflection of our character,” he writes, “we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices.” We want to believe we do good because we are good, and hearing our goodness affirmed motivates us to keep up the good work (literally).

Grant cites a study in which 7- and 8-year-olds were doused in different types of praise. After donating some of the marbles they’d won in a game to poorer children, half of the participating kids were told: “It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.” The other half heard: “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.”

Grant continues:

A couple of weeks later, when faced with more opportunities to give and share, the children were much more generous after their character had been praised than after their actions had been. Praising their character helped them internalize it as part of their identities. The children learned who they were from observing their own actions.

Last time I wrote about kids and praise, I quoted from a Nietzsche essay (which I had not read. I guess I am the type of person who quotes essays she hasn’t read): “Some are made modest by great praise, others insolent.” The quote was relevant because it underscored that kudos can have varying effects depending on the characteristics of the people receiving them. (I wish the latest New York Times piece had addressed this issue.) Now, I get to quote a Nietzsche essay I have read: In On the Genealogy of Morals, the philosopher posits that there is no real difference between “being” and “doing,” between “the lightning and the flash.” And that’s sort of the theory Grant is unfurling here: that generous deeds turn you into a generous person; we are all the sum of our behaviors. (When Grant writes that “the children learned who they were from observing their own actions,” he’s challenging the idea that you can so neatly separate your kid’s intimate core from how he operates in the world.) 

And yet sometimes that separation is crucial. When it comes to discouraging bad behavior, Grant says, kids respond much better to feedback that stresses 1) sadness at the action and 2) confidence in the worthy intentions of the kid. The point is to create feelings of guilt (“I have done a bad thing”) rather than shame (“I am a bad person”) because guilt prompts amending behavior, whereas shame just makes people hide or lash out.

In a way, criticism that invokes a kid’s inner nature boomerangs for the same reason that praising her intelligence can: A parent’s estimation of character becomes a prison sentence. For children constantly told they are smart, the pressure of living up to that epithet looms large. Depending on how confident the kid is, the weight of the prophecy sometimes outweighs the thrill of getting complimented. Meanwhile, for children led to believe they harbor secret moral flaws, it’s easier to retreat or throw a tantrum than to fight the “truth.”

It may seem like a lot for parents to keep track of: Praise what they do, not who they are, unless we’re talking about morals, and then praise who they are, unless they are being bad, then point out what they’ve done wrong, but don’t shame. Of course, there are other, more straightforward ways to foster compassion in the youth, though they require more from us olds than deploying the correct, carefully spun phrase. Grant describes a famous 1975 experiment in which 140 school-age children received prizes that they could either keep for themselves or donate to poorer kids. Before they decided, though, the students observed their teacher navigate a similar dilemma with her own prize. Next, the teacher lectured the kids on “the value of taking, giving, or neither.”

By the time the students had to decide whether to act selfishly or generously, they were weighing the adult’s example, the adult’s verbal sermon, and their own codes and preferences. In this alloy of influences, Grant says, the grown-up behavior mattered most: Regardless of what the teacher preached, students who saw the adults act generously were generous themselves. Whether or not it is distinct from its flash, apparently lightning likes to learn by example.