When Melinda Wenner Moyer looked around in the fall of 2018, she saw everywhere what she would describe as “jerks.” In the US and the UK, hate crime was on the rise, and continues to rise. Across the world, accusations from #MeToo kept pouring in. Donald Trump was in the White House and “I felt like there was so much bad behavior everywhere,” says Moyer. “I started thinking about my children and worrying about ‘Who are they going to become?’ and ‘What were they learning from this behavior?’ if they saw it on TV or heard it from their friends. “Moyer realized,” What I wanted more than anything else was for my children not to grow up to be morons. “
Moyer, a science journalist and parenting columnist, decided to pursue the investigation and ended up writing a book with the pleasant title How to Raise Kids Who Are Not Idiots. In the vast realm of parenting tips, there was a lot about diet, sleep, and how to turn your child into a superhuman genius, but not much about creating a kind and compassionate person.
“I think there are probably a couple of reasons for this,” he says. Some parents are afraid, she believes, that instilling kindness “will be to the detriment of their children: they will walk them everywhere, they will not succeed, it will stop them in some way.” . But when I looked at the research on this, it clearly suggested the opposite: that kindness is actually strongly associated with success.
“There was a study in which researchers followed individual children and found that the children who were the most helpful and generous in kindergarten ended up making the most money when they were 25 years old, and were least likely to be in prison “.
The other reason, he thinks, is that if parents think they are good people, in other words, not an idiot (or an idiot, depending on where they are), that will be enough to ensure that our children are too. “I think there is something to that,” he says. Much of his book is about modeling good behavior. “But I was also surprised by the research that really challenged some of my parenting instincts.”
For example, in her chapter on raising children who don’t get racist, specifically targeting white parents, Moyer recalls explaining to her five-year-old daughter why a Black Lives Matter protest, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder . , was on the front page of the newspaper. Before having examined the investigation, she would have questioned going into so much detail about racism with her children. There is “the idea that white parents shouldn’t talk about race. Research shows that it is very common for white parents, in particular, to advocate “ colorblind ” parenting, where we think that if we don’t talk about race with our children then they won’t see it, they won’t give it much thought. they are less likely to become racist.
But the research shows that this is not what happens. First of all, we know that, starting at three months, babies can discern skin color and like to look at photos of adults who share the same skin color as their caregivers. So we know that they can see it and that they are making judgments based on it. “
When children, who are naturally curious, try to understand why the world looks the way it is, “they see very easily in our society that most of the people who have power, prestige and money are white. If parents and teachers are not talking about [how] racism is feeding this hierarchy, so children come to the simplest conclusion: ‘Well, maybe white people have more power and money because they are better.
Add an embarrassed parent who shuts them down every time they bring up race and “start to think of race as a bad thing,” unless the parents reject any stereotypes their child may be developing. A 2011 study cited by Moyer found that children whose parents (white) engaged with them about race became less judgmental than those whose parents ignored it.
Another area Moyer found counterintuitive was self-esteem. Well-intentioned attempts by parents to increase self-esteem often had the effect of undermining it. “Pressuring our children to do well in school, enrolling them in all extracurricular activities and wanting them to be the best of the best, that undermines their self-esteem, because then they think that our love for them depends on what they do and how they perform, ”he says. “Generally speaking, the feeling of being loved unconditionally is one of the most crucial things for healthy self-esteem.” Being overprotective can also hurt you. “I feel like a lot of parents are now so protective of children in terms of not wanting them to experience failures or make mistakes.”
SUBWAYOyer says he didn’t plan to write a parenting book. “I found the premise obnoxious, like, ‘Who am I to tell other parents what to do? I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, ‘”she says in a video call from her home in Hudson Valley, New York, where she lives with her husband, a science magazine editor, and their two children, who are 10 and seven .
Her childhood was spent largely in Atlanta, Georgia, where her mother was an interior designer and her father was a management consultant. She describes her upbringing as an “authoritarian” style: there were limits and consequences of last resort, but an atmosphere of love and empathy (as opposed to the “authoritarian” style, which is characterized by strict rules, discipline, and coldness).
Writing the book made her revisit her childhood. She says she was “pleasantly surprised” by much of what her parents did. “In the early 80s, there were a lot more authoritarian parents and I think mine struck a good balance between respecting myself and letting me make decisions, but also having clear limits. I think there’s only one point in the book where I called them out for something, which is how they used to compare me and my sister. They used to say that my sister was sociable and that I was shy, and that definitely stuck with me. “
After a stint working for a biotech company, Moyer became a science journalist and, after the birth of his son, brought his investigative skills to a parenting column in Slate magazine. It happened, he laughs, because “I had so many questions and I didn’t have any answers … I was like, ‘I’ll use science to get answers.’ Which worked, sometimes. “
For the book, he worked backwards from the idea of what makes an idiot and what parents can do to cultivate opposite traits and values. Encouraging generosity and help can mitigate selfishness (among her strategies, she advises being explicit about what is expected and highlighting the impact of children’s actions on other people). In addition to chapters on anti-racism, anti-sexism, and how to support self-esteem without creating a narcissist, it covers raising an honest child, creating harmonious sibling relationships, and resilience. “I definitely wanted to include bullying, how do we raise children who are not bullying? What do we know about what drives children to become bullies? “
She was alarmed by her research that suggested the toxic political atmosphere was having an impact. “There was a study at the time of the [2016 US presidential] election that found that, in school districts that were very pro-Trump, there was an increase in bullying rates in schools compared to schools that were more pro-Clinton. ”She points to work done by the Southern Poverty Law Post-Election Hate Crimes Center, which included teachers who reported they were seeing more hateful behavior: “Kids who had actually been saying exactly the things Trump had said, like ‘build a wall.’ That’s a little more evidence that kids were hearing these things and then thinking, ‘It’s okay to do this.’
While Moyer acknowledges in the book that bullying can often be perpetrated by a child who has seen or experienced domestic violence, in fact much of the behavior that could be described as “jerk” could be explained by dire circumstances at home, there is a lot of parents who would be surprised to learn that their child is a bully. A study that Moyer cites found that nearly a third of fifth graders (ages 10-11) admitted to bullying behavior, but only 2% of their parents knew about it.
ORA theme of Moyer’s book is the importance of being obvious and literal with children. Another is the value of talking about topics like gender, race, sex, and pornography, however uncomfortable it may seem. This also includes things that we, or our children, may not have even considered before. “With the research on bullying, I was surprised to read that many kids who bully just don’t understand that what they are doing is hurtful,” he says. “We need to have these conversations about the fact that sometimes we may have the intention of one thing, but it will have a different impact.” Laurie Kramer, a psychologist who specializes in sibling relationships, told Moyer that many children did not realize that their parents wanted them to get along with their siblings; they needed to be told.
Moyer’s book highlights an uncomfortable truth: We may have to confront our own moronic tendencies (selfishness, unconscious biases, internalized misogyny, inability or unwillingness to understand other people’s perspectives) before we can expect the same from our own. sons.
Moyer has put much of his research into practice. She says she has changed her family for the better. She is more patient and tries to see things from her children’s perspective. They have become more generous and think more about working together and helping each other. “I feel like my kids have gotten along better since I tried some of the sibling strategies,” he says. “They certainly still struggle, but there are times when I will see them negotiating in a way that they never used to, proactively trying to solve problems. I feel like there is less conflict in the house, and I am less frustrated and angry than I used to be as a parent. I feel like we’re closer because of that. “
However, to reassure him, she admits that she did not become a better mother overnight. It took him, he writes, at least six months to start putting it into practice, and it doesn’t get it right all the time. “I certainly make mistakes or do things in ways where I then say, ‘It was probably not the most constructive way to handle it.’ But if she yells or snaps, or handles a situation in an unfair or irrational way, it will make him apologize.
“Sometimes I ask them for advice, like, ‘What do you think I could have done at that time that would have been more constructive?’ We are always correcting our children; I think they love it when we ask for their help and can give us advice. Also, we show how to apologize and that we all make mistakes. It normalizes the fact that we will never be perfect and that’s okay. “
How to Raise Kids Who Are Not Jerks by Melinda Wenner Moyer (title, £ 14.99) is out now. To support the guardian and observer, request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism