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How to Be a Child-Centered Parent Without Raising an A**hole

When kids act like jerks, science can help discern how to respond.

Key points

  • Kids have to break rules in order to understand them, others, and themselves.
  • Much of what parents consider "good" behavior is based on social customs that are not innate, but learned over time—with lots of mistakes.
  • Parents can engage children in thoughtful, sensitive ways while also setting limits and holding them accountable.

I was intrigued by the title of Melinda Wenner Moyer's first book: How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t A**holes. I imagined that many parents, especially those of younger children, would likewise find her work and her research interesting, so I reached out to her on Instagram.

Melinda is an award-winning contributing editor at Scientific American magazine and a regular contributor to The New York Times, Washington Post, and other national magazines and newspapers. She also has a parenting newsletter here. Between being a faculty member in the Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and raising a family of her own, she took the time to answer my questions and reflect on the parenting anxiety that comes with raising younger kids.

Meredith: When kids behave in a particular (undesired) way, parents get nervous. They may ask if their kid is the only one. They may be relieved to hear that others think that another child behaves "worse." I think it might be a universal conundrum for parents to be concerned about the child's behavior but also about how others perceive their parenting skills and approach. Thoughts?

Melinda: Parents often think of their child's behavior as a reflection of their parenting or even of their own character. One point I (frequently!) make in my book is that children are, in many ways, "supposed" to act like a**holes. They have to break rules in order to understand them, and cross boundaries to learn where they are drawn. So much of what we consider "good" behavior is based on social customs—it is learned, not innate, and learning takes time (and often a lot of mistakes).

We need to remember that children's brains are very different from adults' brains. Among other things, the part of the brain responsible for rational behavior and impulse control doesn't fully mature until a person is 25—so kids' impulsive reactions are a reflection of their biology, too.

When kids act like a**holes, those moments are actually opportunities—opportunities for us as parents to see which skills our kids still haven’t mastered yet, and what kinds of things we might need to be working on as a family. Recently, I wrote a piece for The New York Times about research suggesting that bad behavior can, in some ways, also be a sign that your child feels safe with you.

Meredith: What is the balance between child-centered parenting and not raising an a**hole? Can you help readers navigate that invisible line?

Melinda: We can absolutely respect our children and engage with them in thoughtful, responsive, sensitive ways while also setting limits and holding our children accountable. I think that natural and logical consequences work well—when you invoke a consequence that is directly tied to their behavior. I wrote about natural and logical consequences vs. punishments in a recent newsletter.

Meredith: What kinds of simple guardrails can parents "erect" (via speech or behavior modeling) to reduce the chance of a**holeness in their young, middle grade, and teen kids?

Melinda: First, with young kids, we should regularly talk about feelings—ours, theirs, and other people's. Talking about feelings helps to build emotional literacy—an understanding of what emotions are, how they feel, and what they look like. Children with better emotional literacy are more compassionate and helpful because … they can more easily put themselves in that person's shoes, deduce what they need, and take steps to help them.

Another thing we can do is to tie our children's choices with the effects those choices have on others, an approach known as "induction." It's been shown in research to help kids develop more compassion.

One example of this in action: When I ask my kids to clean up their LEGOs, I don't just say, "Please clean up your LEGOs." I say "Please clean up your LEGOs, because otherwise I'll step on them and it'll really hurt." Or when my daughter is singing loudly after school, I might say "I love your singing, but would you mind doing it a bit more quietly? Your brother is trying to do his homework, and I think the sound is making it hard for him to concentrate." Linking our children's behavior to their broader effects on others helps to teach them that they are part of a larger whole and that their actions can have effects they might not always intend.

Finally, lean into conversations about awkward, difficult, nuanced topics. Parents often avoid discussions on topics like race, sex, pornography, bullying, or other difficult issues, because we think that they're not old enough or that we need to protect their innocence. The truth is, by avoiding these conversations, we aren't protecting them from these issues. They are probably hearing about these issues from friends or the media.

When we avoid engaging on these topics, we're just ensuring that the information they get doesn't come from us—and that means the details they're getting may well be inaccurate or go against our values. There are age-appropriate ways to talk about most issues, and research shows that when parents engage with kids on difficult topics, they help children develop a more nuanced understanding and make better choices.

Meredith: Anything else?

Melinda: I think that we can all become better parents by educating ourselves about what the science says on shaping values and behavior and that what we learn directly benefits our kids. Informed by the evidence, we can make parenting decisions that will make our lives as parents a little bit easier, and that will shape our kids into the kinds of people we want them to be.

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