How do you raise kids who aren’t racist or sexist? What do you do if you find out that your kid has bullied a classmate? When should you start to worry that your child’s selfishness has gone too far?
We’re answering these and other tough child-rearing questions on The Upgrade this week with help from science writer Melinda Wenner Moyer. Melinda is an award-winning journalist who writes about science, parenting, and medicine, and she’s a contributing editor at Scientific American, The New York Times, Washington Post, and other national outlets. Her new book, How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes: Science-Based Strategies for Better Parenting—from Tots to Teens, is full of fascinating research on how to raise kids in ways that will hopefully keep them growing up to become someone, um, terrible.
Listen to hear Melinda talk about some of the research that has revealed the best approaches towards issues like talking about race with your children, raising kids to have less sexist attitudes, and how to handle it when your kid has hurt someone else.
Highlights from this week’s episode
From the Melinda Wenner Moyer interview:
On the importance of talking about emotions with kids:
What was really interesting about digging into this research is that overwhelmingly, it seems, one of the most important things we can be doing with kids is talking about feelings and like our own feelings, their feelings, acknowledging them, validating feelings. And at first I was like, what’s the link here? Why is talking about feelings so important? But when you think about it, in order for a kid to be generous and thoughtful and selfless, they have to be able to understand another person’s emotions, they have to be able to recognize, like, oh, my friend is sad and why might my friend be sad and what can I do to help them? And so they have to be really like fluid in the language of emotions and in just like recognizing what they look like and what they mean. And when parents talk a lot about them and bring them up when they’re reading books and things like that, it helps to solidify the development of this. And I guess the skill of it, like talking about feelings really helps to solidify is called theory of mind, which is essentially the ability to take other people’s perspectives.
On why it’s so essential that white parents talk with their kids about race and racism:
There’s this idea that maybe if you don’t talk about race, your kids won’t see it and won’t make a big deal out of it. And, you know, therefore, your kids won’t grow up to be racist. But the research really directly contradicts this. And again, it comes back to this idea that kids are looking around the world and trying to understand what matters. And they, like with the gender hierarchies, they see very salient racial hierarchies and power. And if they see this and they aren’t told by their parents or teachers why this hierarchy exists and that it is because of racism and the way that our society is built through policies and laws and whatnot, then they’re going to make the simplest conclusion, which is, OK, well, maybe white people are just better [and] smarter. So it’s, again, these inferences that kids make unless we really as parents push back against them, these inferences can be really dangerous.
On how to approach talking with your kids when they’ve said something racist, sexist, or harmful:
When I talked to researchers about this, they emphasized like, first of all, you don’t want to shame your kid immediately and scream at them for saying something racist, because then they’re so upset and feel ashamed and can’t really listen to you beyond that point. And also they may not understand what they’re saying and they really may not get that what they’ve said is as terrible as it is. So [researchers] say take a deep breath as a parent and say like, “Oh, gosh, where did you hear that? What does that mean to you?” And “Why did you say that?” And try to sort of understand where they’re coming from. And then beyond that, say, “OK, well, actually what you said is really hurtful and let me explain why.” And then you, depending on their age, you try to explain, like, why what they said is a bad word or something that’s really hurtful and, try to explain the impact of those words on another person. Like that’s one of the things I discovered just in general about discipline when I was looking at the research is that it’s really helpful to always, like, tie what your kid has done to how it affects other people.
For more research-based parenting tips, we recommend listening to the full episode.