As an award-winning science journalist, Melinda Wenner Moyer was regularly asked to investigate and address all kinds of parenting questions: how to potty train, when and whether to get vaccines, and how to help kids sleep through the night. But as Melinda's children grew, she found that one huge area was ignored in the realm of parenting advice: how do we make sure our kids don't grow up to be assholes?
On social media, in the news, and from the highest levels of government, kids are increasingly getting the message that being selfish, obnoxious and cruel is okay. Hate crimes among children and teens are rising, while compassion among teens has been dropping. We know, of course, that young people have the capacity for great empathy, resilience, and action, and we all want to bring up kids who will help build a better tomorrow. But how do we actually do this? How do we raise children who are kind, considerate, and ethical inside and outside the home, who will grow into adults committed to making the world a better place?
How to Raise Kids Who Aren't Assholes is a deeply researched, evidence-based primer that provides a fresh, often surprising perspective on parenting issues, from toddlerhood through the teenage years. First, Melinda outlines the traits we want our children to possessincluding honesty, generosity, and antiracismand then she provides scientifically-based strategies that will help parents instill those characteristics in their kids. Learn how to raise the kind of kids you actually want to hang out withand who just might save the world.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My friend Millie still remembers, in cringing, Technicolor detail, the time her then-5-year-old son said something blatantly racist. It was three years ago, and she and her husband, who are both white, were on vacation with their kids in Florida. After a week of intense together-time, they’d hired a babysitter so they could enjoy a night out. The babysitter happened to be Black.
The next day, Millie asked her son whether he had fun with his babysitter. “No, I didn’t like her,” he replied. When Millie pressed for more info, her son said matter-of-factly, “I didn’t like her because she had dark skin.”
Millie was mortified and had no idea how to respond. She and her husband thought they were raising their kids to be respectful and, you know, not racist, but now? Now they weren’t so sure. And they had no idea what to do about it.
Most parents — myself included — want their kids to grow up to become kind-hearted people. In 2016, Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind the show Sesame Street, interviewed more than 2,000 American parents of children ages 3 to 12, as well as 500 elementary and middle-school teachers. Three-quarters of parents and teachers said they felt it is more important for kids to be kind than it is for them to be academically successful. Similarly, in a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of American parents, 71 percent said they felt it was extremely important that their children be ethical and honest, while 65 percent said it was extremely important that their kids be caring and compassionate. Far fewer emphasized the need for ambition or financial independence.
Yet in that Sesame Workshop survey, 40 percent of parents said they didn’t think their children were particularly kind, while 54 percent said they didn’t think their children were thoughtful. Clearly, despite wanting to foster goodness, many parents aren’t sure how to do it.
I know this because, for the past nine years, I’ve been using my science background — I have degrees in biology and science journalism — to dig into the research on parenting as well as child and adolescent development. I’ve written a science-based parenting column for Slate and dozens of parenting articles for the New York Times. I dig into the published academic research on complicated parenting questions, vet it, and translate it into simple, evidence-based parenting advice — advice that the science truly supports. And I’ve often been surprised, if not flat-out shocked, by what the research actually suggests parents do … and how different that professional guidance is from what I had assumed it would be.
Take, for instance, the issue of race, which became a much more pressing issue in many parents’ minds after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans by police officers in 2020. Although parents of color typically have regular conversations with their kids about race — they have to — most white parents, my friend Millie included, avoid the topic of race in a well-meaning attempt to raise their kids to be “colorblind.” If they don’t mention race, these parents think, maybe their kids won’t notice it. But the research clearly shows that children (even babies!) do see race — and that, when they aren’t provided with a framework through which to make sense of it, kids make prejudiced inferences. They see that white people tend to have more power and wealth than people of other races, and then they assume that’s because white people are somehow better or smarter.
When I interviewed primary school educator Naomi O’Brien, the co-author of a series of books for parents about race, she explained that she regularly sees her white students saying and doing racist things, such as announcing they won’t play with a particular peer because of his “dirty skin” — and that their parents are all too often oblivious to their judgments. Making matters worse, when white kids try to talk to their parents about race, O’Brien says, “they're hushed and they're shushed and told not to speak about it, and they just internalize it as talking about color is bad, having color is bad.” The truth is fishy;— and the research clearly shows — that white parents need to talk to their kids about race in explicit ways to prevent them from making racist assumptions.
Parents often unwittingly fuel sexist beliefs, too, by giving different messages to girls than to boys — messages that reflect our grown-up misogynistic reality. Like that appearance matters more for girls than for boys, and that boys aren’t allowed to feel sad or afraid. And when we follow the age-old advice to just let our kids work out sibling fights by themselves, we often make sibling rivalry worse and cause our kids to think that bullying and coercion are the best ways to resolve conflict.
Sometimes, of course, research confirms our deeply held parenting instincts, but other times it directly contradicts it in fascinating, thought-provoking ways — which is one of the reasons I decided to write this book. I wanted to share all the surprising science I’d uncovered about raising kind kids.
So Many Assholes
I wrote this book for another big reason, too. I believe our work as parents today is more crucial than ever. The world has been sending dangerous messages to our kids about how they should behave and treat one another — messages that we desperately need to challenge and counteract.
Before I explain, I first want to say that I think kids are sometimes supposed to act like assholes. They have to challenge boundaries in order to understand them, and they have to make social bloopers in order to learn from them. I’ve come to think of mortifying kid moments (and we have a lot of those in our house) as teaching opportunities — or, better yet, as wake-up calls that illustrate what we need to be working on as a family.
Unfortunately, right now, parents are being bombarded with wake-up calls, because people everywhere have been behaving pretty badly. Between 2015 and 2018, according to the FBI, the number of hate crime incidents in the United States increased by 21 percent. Many of these incidents were perpetrated by adults, but kids have been involved, too. In the fall of 2018, K-12 teachers and staff reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center that they had observed more than 3,000 hate-related incidents in their schools over the past few months; in more than half, no students were disciplined. In Monroe, Louisiana, for instance, a white student put a noose around a black classmate’s neck.
Garden-variety bullying seems to be worsening, too. In 2016, the Human Rights Campaign surveyed 50,000 American middle- and high-schoolers, and 79 percent of them said they thought school bullying incidents had recently gotten worse. When researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles surveyed 1,535 public high school teachers in the summer of 2017, nearly 30 percent said that their students were making more derogatory remarks about their peers than they had a few years ago.
This crisis of kindness may have many causes. Some researchers think it has been fueled at least in part by the presidency of Donald Trump. The notion that political figures could influence kids may seem like a stretch, since many kids aren’t particularly interested in politics. But Trump’s rhetoric — which has included lying, joking about sexual assault, mocking disabled individuals and referring to majority-Black countries as “shithole countries” — was all over the TV and newspapers for years, pervading many a dinner conversation, and it may have had a direct effect on our children.
There’s even some evidence linking support for Trump with bullying behavior. In a study published in March 2019, educational psychologists Dewey Cornell and Francis Huang analyzed teasing and bullying patterns in Virginia middle schools before and after the 2016 presidential election using results from school surveys. They found that in schools in pro-Trump districts, teasing and bullying were 18 percent higher than in schools located in pro-Clinton districts. The discrepancies between these districts were new, in that bullying rates between the districts hadn’t been any different in 2015. (It’s important to note, too, that these findings followed a documented decline in school bullying. A 2017 study published in the journal Pediatrics noted that between 2005 and 2014, bullying dropped among fourth to twelfth graders, and declined faster and faster over time.)
In November 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center compiled a list of 867 hate incidents that happened in the seven days following the 2016 presidential election. Many involved kids. One teacher in Washington state reported that students chanted “Build a Wall” in her school cafeteria the day after the election; she also overheard one student say to another, “If you aren’t born here, pack your bags.” In Greenville, South Carolina, a 12-year-old was surrounded by eight classmates who told her they “couldn’t wait to see her ugly face deported,” while in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a 16-year-old dropped out of school after classmates called her a fag and a queer and threatened to “grab her by the pussy.” The teen had come out as gay four years earlier, and, according to her parents, she’d never been harassed in this way. “All of a sudden, the 9th [of November] hits,” one of her parents said, “and she’s some kind of freak — she’s a target.”
To be fair, these incidents are not controlled studies, and it’s hard to say for sure that these events wouldn’t have transpired no matter who was sitting in the White House. They may be symptoms of broader social patterns rather than of a specific political shift. But kids do learn from bad examples. According to a well-accepted theory in psychology known as Social Learning Theory, developed in the 1960s by Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura, children (as well as adults) take cues on how to behave by observing the people around them. The people they most tend to emulate are the ones with high status — like the President of the United States.
In one well-known experiment, Bandura and his colleagues invited 3- to 6-year-olds into a room where they, by themselves, watched another adult play. Some kids saw the adult hit, beat and verbally assault a doll; others watched the adult play calmly with toys. Then the children were individually taken into a different room and made to feel frustrated: After playing with cool new toys for a couple of minutes, they were told they could no longer have them and were brought back to the original room, where they were allowed to play with other toys, including the doll, for 20 minutes.
The kids who had seen the adult harm the doll were much more likely than the other kids to attack it, and many of them assaulted it over and over and over again. On average, during that 20 minute period, the boys physically attacked the doll 35 times, while the girls assaulted it 13 times.
These experiments are, essentially, playing out in our country right now: People in power have been the adults telling everyone that racism, sexism, bullying, and aggression, are not just OK, but what powerful people do. It’s not just Trump, either; we have plenty of bad actors to point to, including Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein, Louis C.K., Bill O’Reilly, and R. Kelly, all of whom have done things to showcase our culture’s deeply held sexism, propensity towards violence and distorted power dynamics.
These bad influences have not only been making our kids less compassionate, but also victimizing vulnerable youth. In a 2019 paper published in the Journal of Child Psychotherapy, five child psychologists lamented that “threats of the external world” — including deportations, family separations, and police shootings — “are now prevalent themes in our child psychotherapy sessions.” In 2017, 13 percent of U.S. teens experienced at least one depressive episode, compared with 8 percent in 2007. And the coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse, heightening child depression and anxiety and even inciting post-traumatic stress disorder in some kids.
Young people’s values have been shifting in worrying ways, too. Research has found that college students are less empathetic than they used to be — they are less likely to feel for people who are less fortunate and to try to put themselves in other people’s shoes. It doesn’t help that universities and military academies rarely hold students accountable for sexual harassment and sexual assault, and that the college fraternity culture openly celebrates bad behavior. When a high school teacher heard that I was writing this book, she summarized her thoughts on today’s kids this way: “So many assholes.”
A Better Tomorrow
If all of this makes you want to throw up your hands and drown yourself in wine, I get it. I went through that phase, too. But now, I see all of this as a call to action. More than anything else, I want my kids to be happy and to feel loved. Yet as I observe the cruelty that is increasingly pervading our country, a growing part of me wants something else for my kids, too: I want them to be kind-hearted and to treat other people with respect and dignity. It’s not something I used to actively think about, but now it feels pressing and essential.
And the great thing is, if we parents focus on raising kind kids, we can eliminate the mounting cruelty in the world, or at least tamp it down. We’re raising future lawyers, politicians, business owners, artists, health-care workers … future everythings. Of course, we aren’t molding our kids out of clay, and many aspects of our kids’ lives — their peers, their teachers, their genes — shape who they ultimately become, too. But parents have immense influence on the trajectories their kids take in life. We can help them become happy and successful and considerate and generous.
In fact, raising our kids to be kind can actually make them happier and more successful. Research suggests that kindness, emotional regulation, conscientiousness and other character skills are far stronger predictors of academic achievement and life success than things like IQ and SAT scores. In a 2019 analysis of 30 years’ worth of data that controlled for the effects of family economic status, researchers found that boys who were kinder and more generous in kindergarten earned significantly more money as adults. A 2018 study reported that kids who were rated by peers as more helpful in middle school got better grades both later in middle school and in high school, and that their IQ had no bearing on those grades. In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant, a Wharton School of Business organizational psychologist, argued that generosity and helpfulness are traits that often distinguish the extremely successful from the merely average.
By raising our kids to be kind, we’ll ensure that they not only thrive, but that they build a better, fairer, stronger world for everyone in the process.
My Goals and Hopes, Explained
As fascinating as this research is, however, I’ll be honest and admit that at first, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of writing a parenting book. The whole premise felt kind of obnoxious. Who was I to tell other parents what to do? It’s not like I’m anything close to a perfect parent, and if you think I have perfect kids, you are welcome to come over this weekend and see for yourself. I think of parenting as a 100,000-piece puzzle that you’re trying to put together while also driving, making dinner and keeping your kids from killing each other.
But one night, I changed my mind. What I was learning as a journalist about the science of character was changing how I interacted with my kids on a day-to-day basis — the kinds of details I brought into our conversations, the kinds of questions I asked them, how I reacted to their feelings and their explanations. Slowly, my parenting became infused with a subtle awareness of small things I could do to help my kids learn how to be empathetic and kind. And I started seeing changes in their behavior. My kids started fighting a bit less. They became better able to recognize and handle their emotions. They seemed more resilient. If what I was learning was helping me handle situations better — and helping my kids become better humans — wouldn’t other parents want to know about it, too?
As you can see, I did end up writing the book, and now you’re reading it. Here’s how I’ve laid out the information for you. In section one, I explore what the science says about shaping specific traits. How do you foster generosity, honesty, kindness, ambition and resilience? How do you stamp out rudeness, entitlement, arrogance, sexism and racism? In each chapter, I provide simple, evidence-based approaches you can use on a daily basis with kids of various ages to bolster good character traits and eliminate the bad. In section two, I provide science-backed strategies to help you deal with particularly gnarly situations and issues: What should you do when your kids fight? How should you manage technology and social media? What’s the best way to talk to your kids about sex and pornography?
One thing I absolutely do not want this book to be is yet another reason for you to judge yourself. Today’s parents endure far too much criticism as it is — we’re ruining our kids because of snowplow parenting and helicopter parenting and intensive parenting and 843 other kinds of supposedly bad parenting that I don’t really understand. Pediatrician Leonard Sax penned an entire book in 2015 called The Collapse of Parenting, which I reviewed for Slate, and let me just say I did not find his arguments evidence-based. I don’t think that kids today are struggling with moral issues because we are doing worse job than our parents did. I do, however, think that many of the role-models that kids are learning from today are dangerous, and that we as parents need to do what we can to push against the pernicious messages they are sending.
I don’t want my advice to feel like additional pressure, either — that I’m giving you more to worry about and squeeze into your busy life. Parents, especially mothers, are spread so very thin these days; as I write this, parents are having to keep kids home and safe during a deadly pandemic, while also working and doing all the other things, which has deeply intensified our burden. We don’t have time to do any more than we already do, and when we try, things often crumble. (For a few months while I was writing this book, I took on too many magazine assignments and got really stressed, and I noticed I was not being a very patient or empathetic mother. Oh the irony: I was spending so much time researching and writing about parenting that I couldn’t actually be an effective parent.)
Instead of adding to your overflowing plates, I hope this book will clear a few things away and make you feel empowered. I want to save you time and effort by giving you the answers to questions you might have had in the back of your mind for years; I want to provide you with ways to handle the kinds of situations that make you think, what the hell should I do now? With my science background, I have digested and translated the complicated science on child development into simple advice that you can use on a daily basis. My hope is that this book makes your life as a parent just a little bit easier, and perhaps a little more enjoyable, too.
This all said, you’re going to have to be patient, and you’re going to have to be forgiving. Shaping a child’s character (not to mention your own behavior as a parent) takes time, and the way children engage with the world is also strongly influenced by their temperament, hormones, mental health, and life history. Kids — even those with big, wonderful hearts — can’t always be generous, empathetic, and warm, and parents shouldn’t jump to conclusions when they demonstrate inevitable hiccups.
Still, it is my firm belief that we can become better parents by educating ourselves. When we understand how kids’ brains develop, why they do the things they do, and how to best communicate with them, we can provide our children with the tools and coping strategies they need to handle what the world throws at them with grace and compassion.
From what I’ve learned, it really makes a difference: the boundaries we set, the conversations we have, the behaviors we respond to — and the ones we ignore. Parenting presents us with infinite opportunities to teach our kids values. The more we take advantage of them, and the more knowledgeable we are about what actually works, the more confident we can be that our children will grow into the kinds of people we want them to be — the kinds of people the world really needs.