How to raise kinder, less en­ti­tled kids (ac­cord­ing to sci­ence)

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - KAREN WEESE

MAYBE it was that time you took the kids to the amuse­ment park and on the way home – their adorable faces still sticky from the slushies you’d sprung for, their lit­tle wrists adorned with pricey full-day passes – they asked to stop for ice cream. You de­clined and they yelled: “We never get to do any­thing!”

Or the time you asked them to dust the liv­ing room af­ter you had vac­u­umed the house, cleaned the bath­room, mowed the lawn and shopped for gro­ceries, and they wailed: “Do we have to do ev­ery­thing?”

Nearly all of us have ban­gour-head-against-the-wall sto­ries about our kids act­ing in an en­ti­tled man­ner. We’ve tried what feels like ev­ery­thing to stop it, and we still feel as if we’re not quite get­ting it right.

But there’s a young and fas­ci­nat­ing field of re­search called be­havioural eco­nom­ics that ex­plores the some­times ir­ra­tional ways we all make de­ci­sions and think about the world. Maybe if we un­der­stand a lit­tle more about the in­stinc­tive, ir­ra­tional quirks of our kids’ minds, we’ll be bet­ter equipped to raise kinder, lessen­ti­tled kids.

The cobalt-blue sports car roars up be­side me, swerves into my lane, then races ahead. “Se­ri­ously?” I grum­ble. “Id­iot!”

Just then, he hangs a quick left, right by a big sign that says, “Hos­pi­tal Emer­gency Room En­trance.”

Oh. Right. (Well played, Uni­verse. Well played.)

When some­one cuts us off in traf­fic, shows up late or oth­er­wise of­fends us, we often re­flex­ively at­tribute it to an in­trin­sic char­ac­ter­is­tic of the per­son, yet when we in­con­ve­nience oth­ers, we gen­er­ally blame out­side forces (eg, he was in my blind spot).

This Scrooge-like ten­dency is so uni­ver­sal that be­havioural sci­en­tists have a name for it: the fun­da­men­tal at­tri­bu­tion er­ror.

How can par­ents use an aware­ness of this ten­dency to their ben­e­fit? The next time we’re at a restau­rant and the kids are moan­ing: “Where is our food? This wait­ress is ter­ri­ble!”, we can point out that maybe the kitchen is backed up and she’s do­ing her best. Maybe she’s cov­er­ing ex­tra ta­bles for some­one who called in sick, or this is her sec­ond job and she’s been up since 4 am.

“Just talk­ing about ‘How do you think that per­son is feel­ing?’ is so im­por­tant,” says Amy McCready, a mother of two and au­thor of The ‘Me, Me, Me’ Epi­demic: A step-bystep guide to rais­ing ca­pa­ble, grate­ful kids in an over- en­ti­tled world. “It’s a way of un-cen­tring our kids’ uni­verse and get­ting them think­ing out­side of them­selves.”

It’s Satur­day morn­ing and you’ve just set fresh pan­cakes on the ta­ble. Your sweet kids take a bite and then stop chew­ing. “No cho­co­late chips?!” they say, af­fronted.

Be­havioural re­search shows that hu­mans can be­come ac­cli­ma­tised to al­most any­thing if they’re ex­posed to it fre­quently. It’s called “he­do­nic adap­ta­tion” and it’s why Justin Bieber is al­ways buy­ing more out­ra­geous cars, why the kitchen we just re­mod­elled sud­denly needs a new back­splash and why lot­tery win­ners, af­ter the ini­tial thrill of win­ning, end up about as happy as they were be­fore.

What does this mean for kids and par­ents? Any­thing we pro­vide or do reg­u­larly will be­come the new norm, whether it’s post-game milk­shakes or a cer­tain brand of clothes. And not do­ing things can also be­come a norm: if our kids have got used to hav­ing their beds made or din­ner ta­ble set, they’ll come to ex­pect that, too.

“I re­ally think about it as ‘What’s the de­fault that I’m set­ting up?’ “says Tess Thomp­son, a mother of two in Web­ster Groves, Mis­souri. “My kids’ sum­mer day camp is set up for their non-stop en­ter­tain­ment, so nat­u­rally they thought sum­mer Satur­days would be, too.”

She had to re­set their ex­pec­ta­tions. “Once the spe­cial out­ings weren’t ev­ery Satur­day, they ac­tu­ally felt like treats.”

Six-year-old Al­li­son McElroy in­vited a friend over to play, but her play­mate kept peer­ing around the house. Fi­nally, puz­zled, the friend spoke up. “Is this a mini­house?” she asked.

Al­li­son’s mom, Cheryl, tried to keep her voice level. “Uh, no, this is a real house. We live here.”

“Her tone was like: ‘Is this all there is?’ “re­calls Cheryl with a laugh. Her daugh­ter’s new friend lived in a neigh­bour­hood of soar­ing foy­ers and echo­ing great rooms, dif­fer­ent from the lovely ranch house the McEl­roys live in. “I re­ally think she’d never been in a one-storey house be­fore,” Cheryl says.

The lit­tle vis­i­tor was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what be­havioural sci­en­tists call the “avail­abil­ity bias”, which causes us to over­es­ti­mate the preva­lence of some­thing if we see many ex­am­ples of it. So if ev­ery­one at our kids’ school wears in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive shoes, our kids are go­ing to think that’s nor­mal, not be­cause they’re spoiled mon­sters, but be­cause it’s what they see ev­ery day.

“It’s re­ally chal­leng­ing, be­cause other kids are com­ing back from spring break say­ing they went ski­ing, and our kids start to get the im­pres­sion that’s the norm,” says Josh Wright, a fa­ther of three in Mary­land and ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of be­havioural con­sult­ing firm Ideas42.

“So we’re al­ways telling them: ‘You know that’s not nor­mal, right? It’s just one lit­tle slice of the world.’ ”

To give his kids a sense of the wider world, he reg­u­larly takes them to vol­un­teer at a lo­cal soup kitchen; he also chose to live in a so­cio-eco­nom­i­cally di­verse neigh­bour­hood so his kids would be ex­posed to a broader range of ex­pe­ri­ences.

The pa­per an­gel in my daugh­ter’s hand read: “Girl, age 6. Wants: vests.” The an­gel in my son’s hand read: “Boy, age 7. Likes:di­nosaurs.”

My lec­tures about far­away starv­ing chil­dren had pre­vi­ously fallen on deaf ears, but on that De­cem­ber day, my kids, then aged five and eight, ea­gerly dashed around the store to find just the right gifts.

“I think she’ll like these! They have princesses on them!” “Can I get him a sweat­shirt, too? I don’t want him to be cold!”

Of course, it wasn’t my fab­u­lous par­ent­ing that fi­nally got them think­ing. It was what be­havioural sci­en­tists call the “iden­ti­fi­able vic­tim ef­fect” – the hu­man ten­dency to re­spond more em­pa­thet­i­cally to the plight of a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual, rather than a large group.

For in­stance, as be­havioural econ­o­mist Dan Ariely il­lus­trates in his book The Up­side of Ir­ra­tional­ity, you might con­sider send­ing a few dol­lars to vic­tims of a tsunami far away. But if you were walk­ing through a park and saw a lit­tle girl drown­ing in a river, you wouldn’t hes­i­tate to plunge in to save her.

The vivid, nearby in­di­vid­ual al­ways trumps the vague, far­away many.

An aware­ness of this ten­dency can help us choose more ef­fec­tive ways to en­gage our chil­dren with those in need. “For kids to in­ter­nalise it, it needs to be about in­di­vid­ual peo­ple,” Wright says.

“Come on, ev­ery­body, heave!” With a fi­nal shove, you and your new neigh­bours wres­tle their pi­ano up the steps and into their house. The hus­band goes to the kitchen, where you as­sume he is get­ting you a beer, and comes back in­stead with his wal­let. “Here,” he says, slap­ping $20 into your palm. “Thanks for the help.”

Sud­denly, oddly, your warm fuzzies fade, and your de­sire to in­vite them over for pizza later fades with it. But why?

Re­search in­di­cates that we are more mo­ti­vated to do things as part of a so­cial trans­ac­tion than a fi­nan­cial one. When Ariely asked stu­dents to move a couch ei­ther as a favour or for $10, more stu­dents were will­ing to do it as a favour.

Once money was in­volved, Ariely writes, they started think­ing: “Is this re­ally worth my time? Is $10 enough?”

This sug­gests that pay­ing our kids to do chores isn’t nec­es­sar­ily go­ing to turn out as we hope. True, it will prob­a­bly work at first, McCready says, and it’s no prob­lem to pay for oc­ca­sional, large tasks.

But for ev­ery­day chores, “at some point, you’ll ask them to un­load the dish­washer, and they’ll be like: ‘Ehh, I’m good. I don’t re­ally need the money to­day,’ ” she says. Or, the kids will start ne­go­ti­at­ing: “How much will you pay me?”

In­stead, McCready sug­gests fram­ing chores as needed con­tri­bu­tions to the fam­ily. “I know clean­ing the bath­room isn’t fun, but if we all get to work, we’ll have the house clean by lunchtime. (Hand child a sponge.) Thanks for the help!”

Clean house, warm hearts, gen­er­ous kids. – Wash­ing­ton Post

PIC­TURE: MUJAHID SAFODIEN

En­ti­tled chil­dren, who throw tantrums in toy shops, can be­come gen­er­ous chil­dren.

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