Most of the learning done by social creatures, including human beings, is through imitation. Imitation is a smooth process that requires no rewards, punishments or explanations. Children learn the most amazing things simply by imitating us. They learn how to sit, walk, talk and sing by imitating us. They end up with our accents and our postures.
If we want children to grow up acting morally, we can’t be hypocrites. We need to act morally. With the finest of intentions we can be teaching the most sublime moral rules, but if our own disciplinary methods violate those rules, we are actually teaching children to violate them, too.
Furthermore, many people resent being preached to. And human beings have a powerful drive for independence. To spite us, they often consciously or unconsciously behave contrary to our instructions.
Parenting experts assert that when we hit kids for hitting others, we are teaching them that it is acceptable to hit. However, anti-bully policies require us to bully those we label bullies! We insult them (by calling them bullies), campaign against them, intimidate them, humiliate them, socially isolate them and punish them. It is impossible to teach kids that it’s wrong to bully people when we are bullying those we call bullies.
We adults try so hard to teach children to behave morally, yet we are surprised that they act immorally. We aren’t realizing that we are expecting them to act more morally than we do. And we aren’t realizing how we are unwittingly teaching them to behave immorally.
Perhaps the most common way we teach children immorality is by judging and punishing them. For example, I lecture to children about the importance of being nice to people. Then when I see a kid being mean to another, I come along to judge the situation and reprimand and punish the guilty party. What I think I am teaching them is how important is to be nice to people. What I am really teaching them is that if people don’t behave the way they tell them to, it’s their job to judge and punish them.
The best way to teach moral behavior is not by preaching morality and punishing immorality, but by living morally. If we behave morally and discipline our children morally, we will make them feel good. They will like us, admire us and aspire to be like us. And they will do this without any conscious intention. It will happen naturally.
So we must practice what we preach. If we don’t want our children to bully people, we can’t bully people either-even if we think of them as “bullies.” We need to be less concerned with punishing our children for their immorality and more concerned with our own.
For other installments in this series, see: