How to Raise Kids Who Don’t Act Like Jerks

This podcast will focus on how to raise kids who don’t act like jerks—who aren’t racist, sexist, rude bullies and instead show up in this world as empathetic, kind good people. Melinda Wenner Moyer, who writes for Scientific American and The New York Times, offers her insights from assessing thousands of research studies on kids on this latest episode of How to Talk to Kids about Anything.

Special guest: Melinda Wenner Moyer

We are going to talk about how to raise kids who don’t act like big jerks today—who aren’t racist, sexist, rude, stingy bullies but rather those who think of others, finish what they’ve started, tell the truth and show empathy. Tall order. Why? Because from social media to TV programs, movies and even in the adults they see in leadership positions, kids are being exposed to messages that being selfish, obnoxious and cruel is okay and gets things done. Hate crimes among children and teens are rising, while compassion among teens has been dropping—this has been referred to as a “crisis of kindness” by our next guest. We want our kids to show empathy, resilience, and positive action but many of us struggle with how to make this happen. The good news is that science—the hundreds and thousands of studies done by reputable scientists and researchers over the years paints a picture that gives us a “connect the dots” to help our children thrive while also raising them to be kind, antiracist, empathetic, good people. So, what can we learn from the science? For that, we have my next guest to thank who has written a book to help us understand the science and use it in our own homes.

Bio

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a contributing editor at Scientific American magazine and a regular contributor to The New York Times, Washington Post, and other national magazines and newspapers. She is a faculty member in the Science, Health & Environmental Reporting program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Her first book, How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes, was published in July 2021 and the paperback is out this week! I’ve had the pleasure of being interviewed by Melinda for the New York Times a few times as well as for Undark and her newsletter and she always does thorough research.

Important Messages:

  • Induction: Parenting framework- we don’t only empathize with our children’s feelings when they are in distress or upset or angry, but also talk about how their actions affect other people. As in, when you throw snow in our neighbor’s walkway, they have to shovel it again, or someone might slip and fall, or that could make them feel frustrated. Highlighting how other people feel and how other people are impacted by our behavior can be an important thread in discussing many aspects of not being a jerk from racism to sexism, to telling the truth, to finishing what you’ve started.
  • So important to explain “the why”. Why are you asking them to do these behaviors? In terms of how it was affecting others. That means you are part of your family or part of your community. For example; “please clean up your Legos, because otherwise I’m going to step on it or you’re going to step on it and it’s really going to hurt.
  • Theory of mind- the ability for kids to put themselves in other people’s shoes to help take other people’s perspectives. And that is super important for the development of generosity and helpfulness too. Can do this before or after the behavior happens—perspective of others. For example, the school bus driver who is trying to concentrate. What was this like from the bus driver’s perspective? Was it too loud for the bus driver to concentrate when the kids are playing too much noise?
  • Sibling: What do you think she was thinking when you go into her room before you knock? There’s another perspective other than yours.
  • It sounds so simple. And at first you’re like, is this really a big deal? How do I do this? But then you realize like there’s so many ways that you can weave this into your daily discourse with your kids. And I think each time you do it, you’re helping your kids consider other people instead of in addition to themselves. Stick with what you’ve started (not quitting in the middle when people are relying on them). Story- when my son started playing the cello and then he instantly wanted to be good at it. And it was really hard for him to recognize that to get good, you really have to put in the effort and you really have to practice.
  • Fixed mindset. “you’re so smart or you’re so good at math, or you’re so good at soccer, you’re natural and these kinds of this kind of framing implies to kids that skills and smarts, are it kind of innate?” Like you either have it or you don’t, you’re good at this, or you’re not good at this. You’re smart or you’re not smart. And it creates this sort of black and white framework where, kids think of it as something they can’t change. And so the problem is when kids who are praised for say, being good at math, then get a bad grade on a math test- they doubt their ability. Want to protect their reputation. Then they’re like, well, gosh, mom and dad must have been wrong. I’m not good at math. And therefore what’s the point of even, you know, doing math, then if I’m not good at it, I might as well quit while I’m ahead.
  • And those kids who are praised for skills for smarts, they show less resilience when they are faced with a challenge or a failure. They give up because they become really focused on protecting their reputation And so they think, “well, the best way to keep up appearances and, and look smart is to not fail. And so I don’t want do hard problems.” I don’t want to do things that I’m going to struggle at because then that’s evidence I’m not smart.” So let me just not do hard things. So it has these really big implications for motivation and resilience.
  • Growth mindset is fostered by praising kids for effort and tying effort to outcome. Instead of saying, oh, you’re, this must be, because you’re so good at math! Instead: “you must have gotten a good grade because you worked really hard or you studied really hard and that’s great.” And what this does when we are praising for effort, this changes the way kids think of challenges and think of failures. And they start to see challenges as kind of a part of growing and a part of learning. You encounter a challenge and you get better at something.
  • It helps to frame challenges as opportunities for learning. “How do you get better at something?” “You have to keep practicing. You have to do harder and harder things. And then your brain grows or your ability to play the cello grows” (or whatever).
  • Carol Dweck: Carol Dweck’s work from Stanford. She had invited kids to come in and take an IQ test and a third of those kids. She had, she said, you did great on this IQ test– it must because you’re so smart. And then another group, she said, “you did great on this IQ test. It must have been because you worked so hard at the problems.” And then she said to all the kids- “Who would like to do some more problems. I have hard problems, which you might not do well on, but you might learn something from, or I have easy problems, which you might not learn a lot from, but you’ll do well on.” And she found that the kids who were praised for fixed mindset, being smart, they overwhelmingly chose the easier problems and the kids who’ve been praised for growth mindset for working hard. They chose the harder problems. And, then it went further and she found that the ones she gave hard problems to (who’d been praised for smarts) they gave up sooner. They didn’t want to put in the effort. And the kids who’ve been praised for effort. They tried harder. So you see this like immediate effect of this kind of praise on how kids will approach challenges and, and think of, you know, hard things.
  • Sibling rivalry: There are a subset of kids who pick on other kids or, or tease them or bully them even who don’t really recognize that what they’re doing is hurtful. And I think that’s something that is counterintuitive for a lot of parents. I think we have this idea of bullies as being these nasty kids and they know exactly what they’re doing all the time and they’re just trying to be cruel. And sometimes that may be true. But there’s a lot of behavior that’s sort of on this continuum where the child might engage in unkind behavior sometimes, and then also maybe be picked on sometimes, (Victim and bully). And doesn’t recognize that what they’re doing is hurtful.
  • Tie everything back to helping kids take other people’s perspectives. “I know you were trying to be funny, but how would you feel?” Or you can think of a time when something similar did happen to them and they, they were upset- “remember the time that you went over to your friend’s house and she called you that name and, and that didn’t make you feel good.” “You’re trying to be funny, but actually your friend is not interpreting that as funny they’re feeling embarrassed.”
  • Instead of, jumping to the bad conclusion, and shaming, think, “gosh, it’s possible that this kid really didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t intend that to happen.” Engaging in a conversation that’s filled with anger and shame, but just instead trying to sort of teach and help your child, see the perspective more broadly.
  • Not about intention- about impact of behavior. It’s a valid thing that we have to look at the impact of our behavior. Not just the fact that, “oh, well, we didn’t intend for that person to get hurt. We didn’t intend for that person to be offended.” They got affected. And that’s valid.
  • We, as parents, often were told “don’t get involved in our siblings fights and disputes- just let your kids work conflicts out by themselves. That’ll teach them conflict resolution skills.” But- more dominant, older, bigger child will win an argument through kind of coercion or bullying. And that is not the kind of conflict resolution we want to be teaching our kids. We don’t want them to think that the best way to solve a conflict, resolve a conflict is through coercion or bullying.
  • Mediate conflict instead. Labor intensive but investment. (1) “I hear a lot of angry voices.” (2) put away thing fighting over (3) let’s take a minute to calm down and think about maybe they take deep breaths and, and, and get to a point where they can actually have a conversation. (4) “Let me hear what happened from child 1’s perspective and no interrupting. (5) the other child’s perspective. The kids are hearing both perspectives calmly. Both are valid. (6) compromise.
  • Then- can start to sense it and do it on their own. Research says these kinds of compromises are much more equal.
  • Power imbalance often inherent in a lot of sibling relationships (older, younger, big or smaller) and it is important to be able to listen to both people and try to get that balance back into a situation where everybody’s feeling heard and everybody’s feelings are, are valid. We might think that always the older kid is going to be the stronger one, and it’s not always that way. Sometimes the, the younger kid is favored in some way and, and listened to in a different way. So this can be helpful to everyone.
  • Racism/Sexism: There, there’s an idea that a lot of white parents have that if you just don’t talk about race, that your kids won’t notice it, and they won’t notice differences in skin color, they won’t pay attention to it. They won’t make a big deal of it. They won’t become racist essentially. Colorblind parenting. This is where we really just try to parent in a way that does not refer to race ever and does not highlight it. It’s very well meaning. A lot of white parents were raised in families that did this too. And so it’s something that feels very normal to us to do. But the problem is that there is a very salient racial hierarchy in our world and this is true of gender as well. But kids see that race and gender DO matter- do this approach doesn’t work.
  • Racism/Sexism: They see that most people in power in our country are white. They also see that most of them are men. Who are presidents have been, and you can see most are white men with one exception who is a black man. You know, so kids are noticing these things, they’re noticing it within their schools. And of course, they’re noticing also with race, the segregation that happens. Gifted and talented kids- more often being white.
  • There’s all of these different ways that they’re seeing these hierarchies. The problem is when you’re not talking about race and the fact that racism has created this hierarchy and helped to maintain this hierarchy, then kids are going to try and figure out why this hierarchy exists for themselves. And if nobody’s talking about it, they’re going to say, ‘maybe white people have more power because they’re just better.’ And they’re also going to say, gosh, ‘maybe men have more power in society because they’re just better and smarter.’ And these are inferences we obviously don’t want our kids to make, so this is one of the key reasons we need to both be talking with our kids about racism and sexism. We should be explaining to both our daughters and our sons that the reason that men have more power, for example, has nothing to do with their innate ability or their smarts. It has to do with the opportunities they’ve been offered and it has to do with, you know, sexism and discrimination.
  • Research backs up the reasons to have these hard conversations. If we have these conversations in age appropriate ways our kids become less prejudice. Our daughters become more confident. The research has shown that when girls are told that the reason that there’s more men in the sciences is because of discrimination and not because men are better at science, girls then become more interested in science. “oh, this isn’t because I can’t do it. II can absolutely do this and I’m going to do it! I’m going to break that class ceiling!” So having these conversations is empowering to our daughters and it’s not something that’s going to scare them.
  • Research study: Red shirts versus blue shirts in some different situations as kind of a symbol of how kids learn about this hierarchy. When it comes to gender—different than race- we refer to gender all the time– anytime we refer to a person and we use a pronoun, it is built in that we are, we are emphasizing their gender. Whenever we say, look at that lady or that man we’re emphasizing gender, we have different bathrooms for different genders, different sports teams, different happy meals. All of these ways in which kids are being hit over the head with the, the idea that gender is a really important category for humans. They get this immediately. They’re like, “mom refers to gender thousand times a day. It must be extremely important.”
  • Example- We don’t say, give the money to the red-haired person. We say, give the money to the lady.
  • Surmise- gender referred to so often so gender must be very important. That must mean boys and girls, men and women must be different in really important ways.
  • Researchers, they conducted some really fascinating studies. Rebecca Viglar’s work. She had kids come into a classroom and at the beginning of the school year, they were assigned to either wear red t-shirts every day or blue t-shirts every day. And then she varied the classroom, the way that the teacher handled those categories (never referred to or used to categorize the kids) “blues line up for PE and reds, go to the cafeteria.” She would just help identify the kids in a way like we use gender. She found in the classrooms where the teachers just didn’t refer to the t-shirts at all and ignored them. Those kids in did not develop stereotypes about the other t-shirt colors. They didn’t basically become discriminatory. They just kind of ignored the t-shirt colors and it became kind of an insignificant thing. But when the teachers just used those t-shirt colors to identify the kids much, as we do with gender, she found that the kids became incredibly discriminatory against the other t-shirt color. So just nodding to the existence of the categories was enough to create this really powerful feelings and prejudices about the other color.
  • With race- doesn’t that cause an issue then, if we point it out? No. The kids noticed this hierarchy, if there was absolutely no difference in society between people of different races in terms of, if there was no hierarchy then yes, it’s possible that race could become category much like hair color or eye color that people just don’t really think matters. But because there are these very big differences in our society that our kids are noticing. The fact that we don’t talk about race at all actually makes it kind of more titillating and more, like- race clearly matters, but mom and dad will not talk about it with me. And that means like it’s like extra, super important and like a secret important. And therefore, like they actually ascribe like more more meaning to it because we really just don’t talk about it at all. So it’s like with gender, we, we overemphasize gender categories in a way that that fuels prejudice, but with race, we avoid the topic so much that that’s also a problem. So need a balance, but we also just really need to talk about the discrimination itself.
  • SAY THIS NOT THAT: Public space as in his skin is really dark, or she’s got so many braids in her black hair (We shouldn’t say, don’t say that or that’s not okay to say, or that’s rude or we shouldn’t say every everybody’s the same on the inside, that doesn’t matter. These reactions are kind of shaming our kids for noticing skin color. We’re communicating in those responses that we don’t want them to talk about it with us I think some kids will take that as like race and skin color are bad in some way, like mom has this really strong, negative reaction to when I bring it up. And also we’re invalidating their observation. If we say something like that doesn’t matter or everybody’s the same on the inside. It doesn’t matter. We’re basically saying what you just pointed out is incorrect or not important. And you know, and that’s a, that’s a kind of a shameful response and the kid is probably going to think I’m never going to bring up race again with my mom.) Instead- normalize to say yes, she does have darker skin than, than we do. And skin color comes in many or skin comes in many different colors and that’s wonderful. Or you can say, yes, her hair is very different and there’s different kinds of hair and that’s, that’s really cool. You can even explain why there’s differences in skin color, “everybody has a chemical in their skin called melanin and different people have different amounts and that’s what determines your skin color.” Non shaming- you observed this thing.
  • Say this not that- If your child uses a word that shouldn’t be used like calling native native Americans or indigenous people, Indians: Don’t say- that’s mean, that’s horrible! Be quiet! Child likely doesn’t know the reason for it being wrong. Instead: researchers- how to respond in that particular situation, a better thing to do actually is to ask questions, to try to figure out, where did you hear that? Or why do you say that? Or what does that mean to you? That’s an interesting word. What does that mean to you? It also gives you a minute to sort of take a deep breath because it’s never fun to hear your child say something that’s very hurtful. Once you’ve kind of gotten a sense of what your child meant, what he understands or doesn’t understand, then you try to have non shaming discussion about, well, that’s actually a hurtful thing to say. Here’s why that’s hurtful.
  • What if – Notice run down buildings and notice people of color are living in a particular area that’s run down and exclaim it out loud. “ you know, that’s a really interesting and astute observation. There are neighborhoods where most people are white and there are neighborhoods where most people are black- let’s talk about why are these houses not as nice as the houses in our neighborhood? What do you think that’s about? Andand you can have as short or deeper conversation maybe over the course of a few days, about racism and about discrimination and about, you know, the fact that the civil rights movement didn’t solve everything. We still have a lot of problems that we need to, you know, fix and fight against. Story- leaving the airport in New Jersey- great conversation about systemic racism.
  • What about if the child says something blatantly racist- great opportunities to talk about racism. Even though, mortified. Important to not completely like shut them down or berate them for having said it, but, you know, take a deep breath and say, oh, so why do you say that? What makes you say that? Where they’re coming from? Seeing this hierarchy and in to some degree, if they don’t have alternate explanations, it’s it makes sense why they might come to a racist conclusion.
  • We’ve honestly done a pretty bad job at it for so long.
  • Screens: I would say the top piece of advice and the, and the thing that really just kept coming through in the research and in the things I read about screens and handling screens and technology is to be more of a mentor with your kids when it comes to screens and technology, rather than like a monitor. if we can kind of learn and use screens with our kids. If our kid comes to us and says, I want to download this new app, you say, oh, okay, well, “let’s do some research. Tell me about this app. Let’s look it up. Let’s read about it”. Let’s look at the you know, the, the rules. Because every time we, we have these conversations, we’re sharing our values and what we think is important for them to keep in mind and what we think, what we expect of them when they’re online or when they’re, when they’re using an app or when they’re playing a game. And the research really backs this up, that the parents who are more mentors with their kids, with screens, those kids get into less trouble online, and they’re less likely to be watching porn.
  • Create family time around screens. associated with, you know, better outcomes with kids and technology. Entering their world and being part of their world so that you understand it better. See Diana Graber and Devora Heitner podcast episodes for more.
  • Top tip: “lean into hard conversations awkward conversations, the things that we want to avoid talking with our kids, we should be leaning towards and we should be doing more of, so whether this is race or sex or sexism or pornography, or, you know, technology, all the things that we think our kids don’t need to know or it’s better if we don’t talk about this or usually we’re wrong. the better approach according to the research is to, is to really try to have those conversations and to bring them up and to when our kids make comments, to use those as opportunities to have these, these difficult conversations. And connect dots, bring in how choices affect other people, how all the things we say affect other people. Instead of keeping it simple and leaving out the nuance lean into that nuance, lean into the connections and the bigger picture of everything.

Notable Quotables:

  • In order to really foster kindness, I think we have to think of ourselves as a part of a whole- part of your family or part of your community- the more connections we can make between our kids and the bigger whole that we want to highlight, the more they start to think of others when they’re making choices and when they’re deciding, what to do in the world.
  • When you ask your kids how others might feel in a frustrating situation, you’re helping your kids consider other people instead of, or in addition to, themselves.
  • “A lot of white parents were raised in families that used ‘colorblind parenting.’ It is well-meaning and something that feels very normal to us to do. But the problem is that there is a very salient racial hierarchy in our world and this is true of gender as well. Kids are like little detectives, one of their big jobs when they’re growing up is to figure out what’s important in the world and figure out what categories matter, what social categories and they very quickly can see that with race.”
  • “The problem is when you’re not talking about race and the fact that racism has created this hierarchy and helped to maintain this hierarchy, then kids are going to try and figure out why this hierarchy exists for themselves. And if nobody’s talking about it, they’re going to say, ‘maybe white people have more power because they’re just better.’ And they’re also going to say, gosh, ‘maybe men have more power in society because they’re just better and smarter.’ And these are inferences we obviously don’t want our kids to make, so this is one of the key reasons we need to both be talking with our kids about racism and sexism. We should be explaining to both our daughters and our sons that the reason that men have more power, for example, has nothing to do with their innate ability or their smarts. It has to do with the opportunities they’ve been offered and it has to do with, you know, sexism and discrimination.”
  • “When kids hear about gender constantly, they Intuit, well, gender must be a really important category. That must mean boys and girls, men and women must be different in really important ways.”
  • “With gender, we overemphasize gender categories in a way that that fuels prejudice, but with race, we avoid the topic so much that it also a problem. So what we need is a balance. We also just really need to talk about the discrimination itself.”
  • “Lean into hard conversations and awkward conversations. Connect the dots and bring in how choices affect other people, how all the things we say affect other people. Lean into the nuances, lean into the connections and the bigger picture of everything.”

Resources:

Social Media for Dr. Robyn: