Raising a Moral Child: Calling All Parents and Those Who Can Support Them!

Raising a Moral Child: Calling All Parents and Those Who Can Support Them!

It’s time for my come-to-Jesus moment about my bookmarks bar.  Perhaps the aha moment came in the glow of the Easter holiday or the chaos of spring break as a working, single mother of 5 children.  Perhaps it was a single moment of realization when I thought that I must share all the articles that have been lurking on my bar for far too long.  Perhaps it’s my spring cleaning mode happening in my domicile that has bled into my work at my laptop.  Regardless, it’s time to find a way to condense all the recent articles about babies, toddlers and families into one blog, right here and now.

Despite the fact that all the articles on my bookmarks bar focus on my life’s mission, getting every child ready for school by 36 months of age, summarizing and condensing all the information is not going to be an easy task for me, a self-professed “verbatim note-taker” (Having anything written down serves me best for recall later, so better to write everything down!) and a strong believer in “it’s not who you know, but what you know” when it comes to making informed decisions about giving children the best start in life.  Alas, I shall do my best, and what I can’t include here will forever be deleted from my bookmarks bar to make more space for more current information.

I include the above link to Adam Grant’s April 11, 2014 NY Times article on raising a moral child as the “highlight” of my blog for several reasons.  First, Grant asks, in the first line of his article, the most important question one needs to be able to answer to get all children ready for school and life by 36 months of age:  “What does it take to be a good parent?.”  This is a question that parents and caregivers need to be asking themselves every day.  Second, he goes on to provide research and evidence that tells us not about tricks for raising children who are high-achievers, but for teaching children to be kind, compassionate, and helpful, which Grant reports is the No. 1 priority for most parents in 50 countries, including the United States.  He informs us that “by age 2, children experience some moral emotions — feelings triggered by right and wrong,” which helps us remember that the foundations of character are being put into place long before a child’s third birthday.  Last, I highlight this article because it reminds me as a parent that trying to raise kids who are caring, generous, helpful, not shame-prone, and responsive, in a healthy way, to others’ disappointment in them will happen less by instilling shame and more by instilling guilt as well as less by preaching and more by role-modeling.

Two pieces of Grant’s article give us the information we need to know how to be the kind of parent who can raise a moral child (I’m including merely chunks of his article here for each important piece):

1)  In one study spearheaded by the psychologist Karen Caplovitz Barrett, parents rated their toddlers’ tendencies to experience shame and guilt at home. The toddlers received a rag doll, and the leg fell off while they were playing with it alone. The shame-prone toddlers avoided the researcher and did not volunteer that they broke the doll. The guilt-prone toddlers were more likely to fix the doll, approach the experimenter, and explain what happened. The ashamed toddlers were avoiders; the guilty toddlers were amenders.

If we want our children to care about others, we need to teach them to feel guilt rather than shame when they misbehave. In a review of research on emotions and moral development, the psychologist Nancy Eisenberg suggests that shame emerges when parents express anger, withdraw their love, or try to assert their power through threats of punishment: Children may begin to believe that they are bad people.

The most effective response to bad behavior is to express disappointment. According to independent reviews by Professor Eisenberg and David R. Shaffer, parents raise caring children by expressing disappointment and explaining why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation. This enables children to develop standards for judging their actions, feelings of empathy and responsibility for others, and a sense of moral identity, which are conducive to becoming a helpful person. The beauty of expressing disappointment is that it communicates disapproval of the bad behavior, coupled with high expectations and the potential for improvement: “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better.”

2)  In a classic experiment, the psychologist J. Philippe Rushton gave 140 elementary- and middle-school-age children tokens for winning a game, which they could keep entirely or donate some to a child in poverty. They first watched a teacher figure play the game either selfishly or generously, and then preach to them the value of taking, giving or neither. The adult’s influence was significant: Actions spoke louder than words. When the adult behaved selfishly, children followed suit. The words didn’t make much difference — children gave fewer tokens after observing the adult’s selfish actions, regardless of whether the adult verbally advocated selfishness or generosity. When the adult acted generously, students gave the same amount whether generosity was preached or not — they donated 85 percent more than the norm in both cases. When the adult preached selfishness, even after the adult acted generously, the students still gave 49 percent more than the norm. Children learn generosity not by listening to what their role models say, but by observing what they do.

To test whether these role-modeling effects persisted over time, two months later researchers observed the children playing the game again.  The most generous children were those who watched the teacher give but not say anything. Two months later, these children were 31 percent more generous than those who observed the same behavior but also heard it preached. The message from this research is loud and clear: If you don’t model generosity, preaching it may not help in the short run, and in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.

At this point, I want to break away from parents, caregivers and teachers need to know in order to give babies and toddlers the best chance at school and life readiness and focus on what entire communities, towns/cities and segments of society (i.e., women and the poor) in the United States need in order to thrive and give children 0-3 what they need to be successful in life.  The remaining “lurking” articles on my bookmarks bar address the issue of giving the people who take care of babies, toddlers and children the things they need in order to raise moral, physically and emotionally healthy, high-achieveing children:  time and money.

In his April 12, 2014 NY Times article titled “Women’s Unequal Lot,” Ben Wiseman paints a clear picture of a working mother’s life when he describes his sister, who works three or four jobs:  her paid one at an executive search firm as well as her work as a parent, in which she functions as “chauffeur, drill sergeant, cheerleader and emotional nursemaid for her two children and two stepchildren,” and as the vice president of her New Jersey township’s board of education.  Wiseman adds that she also offered to host him and 19 of their family members for the Easter holiday, in which she feels “her character and her femininity” will be judged positively or negatively, depending on how smoothly she will be able to pull off the event.  Despite having a husband who Wiseman freely admits is “a champ” who “pitches in, lavishly,” he goes on to tell us that “the buck really does stop with” his sister.

Wiseman’s motivation in writing the article was obviously not to place his sister on a pedestal (although he did a great job doing so, since she clearly deserves to be on one!).  Instead, he uses it as a venue to report on the fact that not only is there income and employment opportunity disparities at play in a working mother’s life, but that there are other disparities that his sister (and all women) face which are “so much more complicated than her salary.”  He says:

Decades into the discussion about how to ensure women’s equality, we have a culture that still places a different set of expectations and burdens on women and that still nudges or even shames them into certain roles.

There was too little recognition of that last week at the White House, where President Obama practiced the timeless political art of oversimplification, reducing a messy reality into a tidy figure and saying that working women make only 77 cents for every dollar that working men earn. He left the impression that this was principally the consequence of direct discrimination in the form of unequal pay for the same job.

Some of it is, and that’s flatly unacceptable.

But most of it isn’t. And the misuse of the 77-cent statistic could actually hurt the important cause of giving women a fair shake, because it allows people who don’t value that goal a way to discredit those of us who do, and because it gives short shrift to dynamics that must be a part of any meaningful, truthful, constructive discussion.

Wiseman says that “by suggesting that the chief culprit for women’s inferior earnings is discriminatory pay, the 77-cent figure lets too many men off the hook, not forcing them to confront their culpability as bosses who care too little for women’s advancement, as husbands who prioritize their own careers and as fathers who don’t participate fully around the house.”  He reveals that Arlie Russell Hochschild, the sociologist who examined the burden of working women in the book “The Second Shift,” told him that since her book’s publication 25 years ago, men have improved — but not enough. Back then, she said, “If you put a woman’s paid and unpaid labor beside her husband’s, and they both worked full time and had kids under 6, she was working an extra month.” Now, she told Wiseman, “it’s an extra two weeks.”  But, then, Wiseman adds:

That situation, she cautioned, pertains largely to affluent women. For less affluent ones, the issue is often men who are entirely absent. Equal-pay legislation doesn’t begin to address what these women need.

The final two NY Times articles hanging around on my bookmarks bar haven’t been there long.  They address the reality of poor children in America, who struggle to be ready for life, let alone ready for school by the age of 3.  In Trip Gabriel’s April 20 article titled “50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back,” we learn of entire communities and generations of families that are no where near achieving the American dream.  Gabriel focuses on McDowell County, the poorest in West Virginia, which has been “emblematic of entrenched American poverty for more than a half-century.”  According to Gabriel:

John F. Kennedy campaigned here in 1960 and was so appalled that he promised to send help if elected president. His first executive order created the modern food stamp program, whose first recipients were McDowell County residents. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty” in 1964, it was the squalor of Appalachia he had in mind. The federal programs that followed — Medicare, Medicaid, free school lunches and others — lifted tens of thousands above a subsistence standard of living.

But a half-century later, with the poverty rate again on the rise, hardship seems merely to have taken on a new face in McDowell County. The economy is declining along with the coal industry, towns are hollowed out as people flee, and communities are scarred by family dissolution, prescription drug abuse and a high rate of imprisonment.

Forty-six percent of children in the county do not live with a biological parent, according to the school district. Their mothers and fathers are in jail, are dead or have left them to be raised by relatives

Although groups, such as the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, which is working to create a home visitation service to teach new parents the skills of child-rearing, try to make a difference in the lives of children and families, generations of American children quietly slip into the cracks and gutters, never to have the same opportunities of getting an education and being self-sufficient as other American children.  Sabrina Shrader, who spoke on behalf of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition to the State Legislature and appeared before a United States Senate committee last year, spent part of her youth in a battered women’s shelter with her mother and proceeded to earn a college degree in social work.  She sums up the crisis that we as Americans all need to be thinking about, for the health and well-being of our nation, in saying “It’s important we care about places like this.  There are kids and families who want to succeed. They want life to be better, but they don’t know how.”

The second article which deals with helping families is Judith Warner’s April 20, 2014 article titled “To Reduce Inequality, Start with Families.”  She tells us that “fighting inequality” is a hot theme in politics these days in order “to connect with voters.”  She says:

President Obama alluded to it in the State of the Union when he issued the call “to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode,” and to update our laws so that a woman can “have a baby without sacrificing her job” and to allow people “to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship.” It floated to the surface again at the Piketty panel, when Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan economist now serving on the White House Council of Economic Advisers, noted the “asymmetry” of early life experiences that increase inequality among American children, which plays out, in adulthood, as a gap in income-earning potential. “We know that investing more in young children will cause them to be more productive,” she said. Later, she pointed out that “high-income people are able to make investments in their children that lower-income people aren’t able to make.”

Warner goes on to say:

The message is clear: If we want to strike at the roots of inequality in America, we’ve got to start at its source, in the family, at the very beginning of children’s lives. We have to make it possible for mothers — two-thirds of whom are now breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families — to stay in the work force without the sort of family-related job interruptions that can greatly limit their lifetime earnings and even push some families into bankruptcy. We need to make it possible for all parents to give their kids the kind of head start that is increasingly becoming an exclusive birthright of the well-off.

Unlike progressive taxation, this sort of focus on the family really ought to have bipartisan support. And the good news is that there are decades’ worth of shovel-ready legislative and policy proposals that we can draw on: proposals regarding family leave, paid sick days, early childhood education, child care and workplace flexibility that have been stymied for decades.

In Europe, it’s well-established that legislation aimed at keeping women in the work force, and, by extension, helping all families live and thrive amid the present-day realities of working parenthood, is one of the most powerful tools governments can use to fight the long-term, multigenerational ill-effects of income inequality.

In the United States, where virtually no such public policy exists, there’s evidence that families that do have access to paid leave and flexibility through their employers are faring considerably better than those that don’t. In December, a longitudinal survey of more than 100 working- and middle-class families published by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University found that the rewards of allowing families to build wealth over time went “far beyond the paycheck.” Most important, beyond basic benefits, were stable employment and workplace flexibility.

Warner tells us that some segments of workplace society do have access to parental leave and earned family or sick time, others do not. High wage workers enjoy the benefits, but those who earn the lowest wages do not.  Warner says, “What this all means is that the people who are already in the most precarious economic circumstances are the most at risk for a devastating loss of income — and assets — when they need to care for their children. And those already in the strongest earning position see their earning potential grow, thanks to private-sector policies specifically devised to motivate and retain them.”

No one, not Warner, Wiseman, Grant or myself would fault anyone for wanting or being able to earn to their maximum potential.  This is America, after all.  But, the problem is that parents trying to raise children to be ready for school and life in order to be self-sufficient in the long term, are finding it increasingly difficult to get their children ready and to keep them successful over the years.  Parents have to provide excellent care, model moral behavior, provide healthy food, and spend quality time with their children in order to give them the best start in life.  But it doesn’t stop after maternity or paternity leave is over.  Warner tells us “Today, the ability of parents to make the most basic time investments in their children — taking time for parent-teacher conferences or setting a schedule that permits a parent to sometimes be home in the after-school hours — is sharply divided by income level.”  She goes on to say:

The lack of availability of parental time has serious detrimental effects on children’s behavior, ability to learn and emotional development — all of which affect performance in school and, eventually, the workplace. In California, however, access to paid family leave has allowed workers to better care for their newborns and also to make better child care arrangements. And both men and women in the state who used paid leave reported a positive effect on their ability to care for their children. Such lessons about human resource cultivation have not been lost on China, which now includes as part of its economic growth policies a provision that women employed in public enterprises get 98 days of paid maternity leave.

As a nation, we have to show concern and communicate ideas that can make our country stronger.  We have to use our internal moral compass that Grant told us about, which, ideally, our parents had the time and inclination to instill in us from a very young age, to do the right thing by showing concern for those who Gabriel informed us about in his article: those in McDowell County, WV, on Indian reservations in the West, in Hispanic communities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, those in a band across the Deep South and along the Mississippi Delta with a majority black population, and those in Appalachia.  As Wiseman said, “we have to show concern and talk about child care, flexible hours, paid leave. We have to talk about gender stereotypes and whether they steer women into professions with lower compensation. We have to talk about the choices that women make and which of those they feel muscled into.”  Can we all do what Warner asks for at the end of her article:  band together to pledge to fight inequality by creating a more equal start for kids and agree that helping families work and care for one another is precisely what we need to create opportunity for all?

I’ll say it again, as I did above, it’s the United States of America, after all.  There must be ways to achieve what our founding fathers set down for us, a promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, and to see put into action what Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address in terms of “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”  I am a hopeful, faithful person, so I’m sure it will all work out in the end.  However, for the sake of babies, toddlers, children, parents, caregivers, families, communities and cities across the great nation, I hope the end happens in the next year or two, rather than having another 50 years go by, as it has for the war on poverty, with life remaining stagnant or getting worse rather than getting better for such huge portions of our society.

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