Posts in Ethics & Society
Surprising Ways to Encourage Cooperation

At one point or another, we all feel the terrible aftertaste of envy in our social relationships. We see the venal colleague who gets ahead or the layabout relative who repeatedly falls into success.

The resulting envy and jealousy is all too human, as Shakespeare well understood. Still, we don't have to reinforce the traits in children.  

Consider the classic parental headache - sibling rivalry. Siblings get jealous of the attention the other receives. They become intensely concerned with equity. They fight. This is all natural.

But we parents all too readily add fuel to the fire. We pit the children against each other and declare one the winner. We visibly reward the child who is on "good behavior" and punish the child who is "acting out." We allow them to fight with each other without intervention. We may even ask them, "Why can't you be more like your brother?"

Want two children who hate each other? Do these things.

(Need more evidence? Read Alfie Kohn's excellent No Contest: The Case Against Competition.)

No Simple Solution

Here's the really tricky part. We may not even be aware we're setting kids up for failed relationships. Imagine a parent who, with the purest of intentions, regularly praises her oldest child for his math skills.

Does the always alert younger brother understand that the intention is to build the older brother's confidence and sense of accomplishment or does he interpret the message to be "you're never going to be as good as your brother"?

And what if it is the latter? Should the parent forgo the praise? Doesn't the older child deserve the kudos? 

To praise or not to praise, that is the question -- a simple question without a simple "yes/no" answer. Ironically, our culture is rife with social rules, linguistic queues, non-verbal tics, and more emphasizing duality as the norm. It's either victory or defeat, right or wrong, good or bad. We learn this as kids and live by it as adults

Musical Chairs Isn't Fun

Teaching kids that there are winners and losers is so deeply engrained in our culture, it feels nearly impossible to root out. Think about that most benign of children's birthday party games -- musical chairs.

The very thought that musical chairs could be harmful may feel absolutely ridiculous -- the kind of hippy dippy nonsense destroying our world. And, true enough, to an adult observer, the game is a kind of old timey fun. 

But let's imagine you're not an adult watching the amusing, chaotic scramble. Instead, you are a five years old playing the game.

You're feeling a bit awkward as you nervously walk to the music. With each step, you steel your nerves. Suddenly, the music stops. You lurch toward the closest chair and crash into the seat, edging your best friend out.

Everyone laughs and yells your friend's name. You laugh too, but it's fake. You're a bit sorry your friend didn't get a chair, but gosh you are so much more thankful it isn't you!

A chair is removed. The music begins again. The anticipation builds. You get the hang of the game and intentionally hesitate with each step so that you are always in front of a chair, never in the middle.

More chairs are removed as your friends join the crowd of losers. You realize suddenly that there are only a few chairs left. You're starting to think about winning. Your confidence is high.

The music stops again, and you lurch for the nearest empty seat only to find that there isn't one. Everyone is laughing, and your face burns in humiliation as everyone is pointing at you and yelling.

You smile good naturedly, but inside your stomach is churning. You join the group of losers, and once you sit down, you are immeasurably relieved in the solidarity. Your best friend sits beside you, and you are equal again. You are both losers.

The positive skills taught through the game must outweigh the other, especially in their interactions with each other.

The Lessons We Teach

So is musical chairs destroying our children? Should we toss it and other competitive games out because it might hurt someone's feelings?

Not at all. Competition is natural and has pushed humanity to great heights -- funding the space race and Renaissance -- and great horrors -- fueling war and exploitation. 

By exposing children to healthy competition, we can arm them with the social skills they need to handle victory and defeat with grace and courtesy and guide them away from internalizing -- or worse yet, replicating -- its darker side.

But teaching healthy competition means being aware of the implicit lessons the game or competition is teaching. The positive skills taught through the game must outweigh the other, especially in their interactions with each other.

Consider what is learned from musical chairs.

  • It's okay to put winning above friendship.

  • Rooting for others to lose is socially acceptable.

  • Losing is humiliating.

The answer isn't necessarily to toss musical chairs, but we may want to do it differently. We want children to value their human bonds! We want them to root for each other! We want them to feel good about themselves! What would a version of the game look like that fostered those lessons?

We Make the Rules

The other day, our family got out a bingo-style game the kids had received for Christmas. The kids were excited to play it, but instead of reading the rules for determining a winner, they made up their own rules, making it a cooperative game.

We each used more than one bingo card so we would have lots of pictures to look at. We enjoyed matching the picture cards to the pictures on our bingo cards. We stacked them up when we got extra pieces.

When another player needed a piece, we noticed. It was the perfect opportunity to practice skills like generosity and what Montessori called "grace and courtesy" like this: "My brother needs a bat! I have this extra bat. Would you like to have it?"

Competition was alive and well in that moment -- the drive to complete the puzzle. But so was the cooperation. Not long after the game ended, the boys were back at it - arguing about who got the bigger apple.

The game didn't end the sibling rivalry, but it did reinforce a critical lesson. People may disagree, but when one wins, we all win.

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Let Spring Grow a Love for Nature

The winter is long. The grass dry. The wind biting. Fingers numb. We retreat to our warm homes and look inward toward each other, and we wait.

And then... a robin is sighted. Buds on trees give us hope. The emergence of a lone daffodil seals the deal, and we feel relief in our connectedness to the warm earth once more.

Spring is returning.

Young children are naturally inspired to go outside and explore during this time of year. Reading books about Spring, celebrating Spring holidays, and engaging in the ever-popular Spring cleaning ritual are great ways to acknowledge the seasonal shift.

However, if we are to truly nurture the whole child, we must stimulate all of their senses. 

The education which a good mother or a good modern teacher gives today to the child who, for example, is running about in a flower garden is the counsel not to touch the flowers, not to tread on the grass; as if it were sufficient for the child to satisfy the physiological needs of his body by moving his legs and breathing fresh air.
— Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method

Teach the Child How to Touch

April showers bring May flowers, the better to entice eager little fingers. The phrase "Don't touch!" may accurately reflect the parental instinct to protect fragile flowers from a toddler's grasp, but it is not a phrase that fosters learning.

The next time you see your child reach for a flower in someone else's garden, teach him instead HOW to touch - gently, with one finger, on one petal.

Whisper that the flowers are fragile. Convey the reverence for nature's beauty with your own brief caress. Feel the dirt and look up in the sky. Say, "These flowers are here for everyone to enjoy. We want to leave them just like this so that they can keep drinking water from the ground and reaching for the sun."

Find Opportunities for Fewer Rules

Asking your children not to disturb garden flowers is one thing. Asking children not to touch any flowers ignores their need to explore. Children need to engage all their senses (touch, smell, taste) and talk about the little green, growing things in the ground. This means being allowed to freely explore.

If you have access to an open space where children can pluck daisy petals and examine roots, seek that experience right away and return often! And don't overthink it. Even a patch of weeds in the cracks of the sidewalk can offer a satisfying experience to a child. What matters is that you've nurtured the child's natural curiosity.

Plant a Garden 

Long gone are the days when most children were told to go outside and play unsupervised. Likewise, modern farm technology and urbanization have significantly changed how most people conceptualize their source of food.

The nature deficit has dire consequences for humanity’s future

Ask ten adults what, say, a broccoli flower looks like and how to collect the seeds to plant more broccoli, and you are likely to get nine furrowed eyebrows. This nature deficit has dire consequences for humanity's future.

When we lose touch with how our vegetables are grown and meat is raised, we begin to make lifestyle choices that are not conducive to sustaining our physical lives here on Earth. 

Get Involved

Change begins with us. Together, examine the seeds in an apple. Spit a cherry pit into the grass. Roll an avocado's curious, ball-like seed across a table. Put a potato halfway in water and see what happens. Visit a petting farm. Look for ants.

Go to a farmer's market and let your children pick out something locally grown to taste. I promise it will be different (and better) than what you can buy in a grocery store.

Because nature can feel more and more remote from our daily lives, we must create hands-on outdoor experiences for their children. As Maria Montessori said, "place the soul of the child in contact with creation." 

And remember - you don't need to go crazy creating official gardening lesson plans. Simply set aside some time for puttering and weed plucking. If you can grow a whole garden of food to eat, that's wonderful. If you don't have the time, resources, or inclination for it, grow one herb in a small pot, and help your child tend it daily.

Small changes can lead to great things. Just ask the seed.


Note: I'm teaching a new course on introducing children to botany. Learn more here. 

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We Have a Moral Obligation to Teach Storytelling

There’s a famous story about a chained elephant that goes something like this:

“When the elephant was younger and weaker, its owners put a huge chain on it. When it was older and stronger, they put a small chain on it. Though the older elephant could easily break this new chain, it had learned it was pointless to try.”

Queue life lesson about having a growth mindset, changing the patterns of your life, breaking free from the shackles of your mind, etc.

I’m not going to pretend as though I’ve not trotted out this chestnut myself. It does a decent job of making a point about, well, growth mindsets, breaking habits, and such. But it is also dangerous.

Consider:

  • Fact: The newer chain is small.
  • Fact: The older elephant is strong.
  • Conclusion: The elephant could break the chain if it tried.
  • Ergo: It’s not the chain on its leg that is holding the elephant back but the chain in its mind.

So very logical, which is precisely why it can be so very dangerous, for it makes a saint of facts and a devil of story. If only the elephant would use reasoning and data – to let the truth flow from the facts – it could undo the false story holding it back. Put another way, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to trash reason, the scientific method, or fact-based evidence, and I am certainly not here to advocate for “alternative facts” or whatever the word du jour. But I am also dead set on the notion that it is to our very great peril that we underestimate the power of story. Yes, we must root our stories in fact, but we can’t assume that the facts alone are what make something compelling.

Building a Stone Path

It’s the Stone Path principle. Facts are like stones. They have strength and integrity. Stories are the path itself. They take us places. And here’s the rub. The stones don’t know or care that they’re in a path. They’re just stones. It’s the path builder – the storyteller – who determines where we go. The facts have strength. The story has authority. Which is why a compelling story beats a boring fact more often than we’re comfortable with. Or as linguist George Lakoff says, “lies are not as important as the truth that defines who you are.”

So where does that leave us? To be sure, the answer isn't too go full-tilt Pinocchio. We must strive for a truthful recounting of the facts when we communicate. The further erosion of public faith in scientific and reason-derived factual evidence is, frankly, terrifying.

But we must never forget that the facts don't speak for themselves. We, the storytellers – the path builders – must give them voice. And above all, we must stop thinking of the artful retelling of facts as a moral failing. It's a human trait - part and parcel of us. When we fail to acknowledge this fact, we leave ourselves open to deception (he said it so it must be true), confusion (I don't understand why people believe what he just said), and frustration (why won't people believe me; I've got facts on my side.)

The Bias in Education

As does so much, education plays a central role in solving this problem. To start, we must acknowledge our societal bias to equate the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) with rigorous, valid academics – and, implicitly, view all other subjects as “other.” A serious study of the arts, philosophy, theology, and other “soft” subjects helps equip us with the skills needed to appreciate the role both fact and story have in our lives. Yet we consistently rob the arts of their vitality by putting them on a pedestal – literally on a pedestal in an art museum. We visit the arts; we live amongst technology. We love a song; we rely on the electrical grid. We have math nerds but art snobs.

And if those stories aren’t enough, look at the facts as told via school funding. As the Washington Post reports:

"Schools in areas serving children from low-income families have reduced or completely cut their arts and music programs. These programs tend to be the first casualties of budget cuts in hard-pressed school districts already struggling to meet other demands of the academic curriculum, and they are rarely restored.”

The story isn’t much different for schools serving middle- and higher-income families, either, though with greater wealth comes greater opportunity for enrichment beyond the classroom. That once a year family trek to see The Nutcracker helps offset the loss of the school’s theater program.

But it doesn’t help make the arts any more vital or relevant. They remain on a pedestal – distant and removed from everyday life. And with them sits the belief that the truths they convey are not facts. They’re just stories.

I knew we left that chain somewhere. It’s around our legs.

 

Conflict Resolution Starts in the Sandbox

The sand beckons them. One child reaches for a shovel and kneels, prepares to dig. The other takes off his shoes and swishes his bare feet back and forth. “A sand angel!” he exclaims. His whole body is in the game now, back flat, head still, arms flailing. Again and again he returns to recreate the form his body makes in the sand. Each time, more sand is kicked up into the air, his vigorous movements creating a spray in the blue sky above.

As the sand flies higher, the digging child, the neighbor caught beneath the storm, must make a choice. Sand is getting into his hair and into his carefully dug hole. But what should he do?

Here are five possibilities he might consider:

  1. Yell “HEY!” and forcefully shove the offender away.
  2. Quickly get up and leave the sandbox until the offender has finished.
  3. Draw a line in the sand and tell the offender never to cross the boundary.
  4. Threaten to destroy the offender’s project in return.
  5. Engage the offender in the digging project.

Depending on the child’s temperament and also based on what has worked well for him in the past, one of these options might be more appealing.

But which is the right way to handle it? The ethical choice?

The Parent’s Dilemma

To the adult observing, perhaps it is clear who was in the wrong and who should be the one to change his behavior or leave the sandbox. We, the adults, have created a rule, and that rule is “No throwing sand - EVER,” because let’s face it: a sobbing child with sand in the eyes is no joke!

As parents, our instinct is often to intervene immediately and not risk the possible sand-throwing war that could ensue between the two parties. We are also aware of a culturally confining unwritten book called Good Parenting, which instructs: Remind everyone of the rules and strictly enforce them at all times. The consequence of not adhering to this parenting format puts one in a bit of social danger. No one wants to be thought of as the bad parent.

Really Good Parenting

Courage is required for thinking outside of the box. As well, constantly intervening in potential conflicts is both exhausting and, to be honest, a thoughtless approach to child rearing. It is the dog barking at every passing stranger - regardless of whether or not he is here to burgle. If we want our children to learn how to make the ethical choice in the sandbox, we must see ourselves not as rule enforcers but as ethics mentors.

We must teach them to think critically and very quickly through a series of questions that may look something like this:

  1. Does the sand-throwing pose an immediate danger to oneself, the community, or the environment?
  2. Is the sand-throwing intentional?
  3. Does the sand thrower see the digger sitting there nearby?
  4. Is violence (shoving) necessary in order to stop the danger?
  5. Would stepping away to observe allow one to get a different point of view (and out of danger)?

Why World Leaders Throw Sand

Imagine, now, that we are not talking about two children in a sandbox but two world leaders engaged in an international conflict. Their options are very similar: retaliate physically, ignore, build a wall, threaten to destroy, negotiate by finding mutual interests…

To make these choices, leaders need the ability to see the world from a different culture’s point of view and also to be able to quickly determine the most probable positive outcome of an action.

We want skilled, experienced persons who will think not just about satisfying their own ego or ensuring their nation’s safety but also about the global community at large and the effect of their actions on the Earth. The questions they must ask themselves are, not surprisingly, similar as well.

If we want to create the ethical leaders of tomorrow, where do we begin?

We begin in the sandbox.

Before You Say "Good Job" Again, Read This

"See my picture? I made it for you. Do you like it?" When a child comes to you with excitement to show you some of his work, it can be difficult not to respond with praise. On the tip of the tongue is a positive response such as "I love it! Great job!" or "Did you draw this for me? Very nice!" I hate to burst a bubble, but if praise is the constant go-to, there's a problem.

Getting praise can be addictive. Everyone wants affection, and if drawing a pretty picture and making it for someone else is a path to getting some positive attention, it's only natural that the child will do it again.

And again.

And again.

Pretty soon he'll forget why he was excited about drawing in the first place. He'll scribble anything on the page in order to feel the glow of a compliment. He may have started by working for his own pleasure, but with lots of praise, he begins working in order to hear his work validated by someone else.

Getting the warm fuzzy at the end of completing a task becomes the focal point of the entire process, rather than the satisfaction that comes from one's own effort.

The Praise Addiction

It can feel as good to give these accolades as it does to receive them. The praise may even be completely genuine in the beginning. We all want to make someone feel good, and that, in turn makes us feel pleased with ourselves. We can make people feel good, and that feels goooooood!

But what once was an honest, happy surprise becomes tiresome as we are presented with the hundredth drawing (now mostly scribbles without effort). We've run out of compliments, and we settle for a minimalist "Good job!" or offhanded "High five!" with a fake smile. We have exchanged authenticity for a habit.

While steeped in good intentions, this dynamic is not healthy for the child or the parent.

Praise is one example of extrinsic motivation, where one takes pleasure in working for the sake of a reward (in our case, the compliment), as opposed to intrinsic motivation, when one works for the joy of the work itself. It seems a benign practice on the surface until you realize that the more "good jobs" we provide, the more we are inadvertently trivializing the child's work, leading to lower intrinsic motivation.

You heard that right. By good jobbing our children, we are suppressing their desire to learn for the sake of learning. No parent intends for this, of course, but it is proven again and again in study after study. It's time to think before we speak.

External Motivators

Some educators believe that children need praise to become motivated to finish a task. Giving praise is without a doubt motivating. Rewards are very, very strong external motivators. There's no question about that. In Montessori, however, we have a different view of the child. Maria Montessori reminded us that young children will absorb what they need in order to develop into healthy human beings simply from their environments. Motivation comes with the territory. Learning new skills takes effort, self confidence, and determination, yes, but it is a natural state of being.

If the joy of the work alone is not enough to motivate a child to complete the task the teacher intends for the child to complete, we believe that perhaps it is the task that is at fault and not the child. When the child finds the perfect match between activity and interest, desiring only to please himself, that is when you see the real deal excitement for learning.

Praising a child for his efforts to learn a new skill is like praising a tree for absorbing water from the ground in order to grow taller. It just doesn't make sense.

A plant that is given a nourishing environment and treated with reverence will flourish, and so will a child. A compliment here and there can be meaningful if it is well phrased and descriptive. Even physical contact such as a hug or a brief touch on the shoulder can show admiration for the enthusiasm and hard work. Open communication about the benefits of taking on new challenges and feeling proud of accomplishments will always be helpful! What is not helpful is a barrage of meaningless, superfluous accolades.

Consider

Not convinced? Take some time to process it while reading these two excellent books chalk full of evidence about what motivates humans to work and enjoy what they are doing.

But if you're already convinced and just need a little nudge in the right direction, I'd like you to think about what qualities you'd like for your child in regards to his work habits.

Do you want to raise a child who...

  • thinks learning/working is boring or a waste of time
  • needs to show you his work all the time for confirmation
  • doesn't trust that you are honest in your opinion
  • loses interest in hard projects in lieu of easier ones
  • evaluates the quality of his work by his perception of your satisfaction

Or do you want to raise a child who...

  • thinks learning/working is fun
  • doesn't need to show you every time
  • seems genuinely interested in your detailed opinion
  • gets excited about new learning projects, especially challenging ones
  • evaluates the quality of his work by his own feelings of satisfaction

Seems like an easy choice, doesn't it? A little praise now and then in admiration of the child's effort - no harm done! Lots and lots of praise - time to meditate on why you're giving it.

You Can't Teach Altruism

When I taught in public school, one school I worked at had a character education program. Each month it focused on another trait - Responsibility.  Honesty.  Caring.  Courage.  Integrity.  Respect.  And so on.  

Every week we were supposed to select students who had done something to exhibit the trait of the month and submit their names to the school office.  The names would be drawn lottery style on Fridays and announced over the intercom.  The lucky child would head down to the office to go get a ticket or certificate or something that may have been redeemable for a prize (I can't really remember).  

When Good Intentions Go Astray

I know the school district was well meaning when they wanted to help raise responsible kids.  Isn't that what we all want?  However, attaching an extrinsic reward (the certificate, recognition, or prize) can be counterproductive to helping children learn how to be "good citizens".

So how do you teach altruism?  The answer is...you don't.  Children learn from you.  They watch you.  They listen to you.  If you are kind and generous, caring and responsible, they will do their best to emulate it.  I love reading stories, and I think that a story about a courageous, caring person can be inspirational. So can studying beautiful humans who worked for justice and love, like Martin Luther King, Jr.

But in the end, the most important influence on your child's behavior is your own behavior.

And perfection is not required. A good friend reminded me recently that it's okay to let your children see you being "real" because we all lose it sometimes when we are tired or stressed.  Maybe especially when you are not on top of your game, your children have the opportunity to rise up and be the grown up: the kind, responsible one taking care of you.