Do Children Start Out Good or Bad? Our Answer Matters.

by Rick on April 18, 2014

“Ricky, you are not yourself, today,” my mother used to say when I was, well, shall we say, socially irresponsible.

I was a difficult child. My mother even said so in the last few days we were together before she died.

I said, “I know,” when she said it. By then it didn’t hurt. By then we had been through a lot together (she was 84 and I was 60), and I knew she loved me in all my imperfections.

But unconditional love wasn’t easy for her. I got angry a lot. Once, she even said: “You poor mixed up kid.” I was three. I must have been difficult, indeed, to have driven her to such a level of frustration that she would assassinate my character. And see? Those words still hurt.

She must have kept her character assassinations to a minimum, though, because the notion that my self is good and that I am not my self when I am mad is built in. I understand my self to be a thoughtful, kind, loving self, who is sometimes “beside himself” with anger.

The Human Spark _ So Human So Chimp (PBS) Part 1_4 HD - YouTubeIt could have gone another way, though. I could have grown up thinking I have two selves, a kind self and a mean self. My fear of an evil self lurking inside would increase the likelihood of its appearance. When people trust us, we have a tendency not to want to let them down. Better to be a good guy who sometimes makes mistakes—like all of us.

Do children start out good or bad? Our answer makes a difference. Acting as if we expect our children to be good and acting surprised when they are not greatly increases the likelihood that they will be socially responsible people that others like to have around. This is what it takes to educate children to be good. It’s not so much what you say or even what you do, but what a child infers from watching you.

We who create social environments for our children have power. The research is now pretty clear that people are born thoughtful of others. Babies are inclined to be nice.

They naturally want to have a positive impact on others, and so are constantly doing research on what it takes to have good relationships, mapping the social environment onto their brains. Therefore, raising kind, loving, socially responsible people is a matter of raising them in a family, a community and a school that is mostly kind, loving and mutually supportive. Kids don’t so much need to be taught kindness as to grow their repertoire of acts of kindness and to expand the realms in which being kind is the smart move.

It makes sense that humans would be like this. Primates are herd animals, and for survival herd animals need to stick together. Our branch of the primate line became so successful (to the degree you could call our current state of affairs on the planet successful) when language gave us the ability to turn this kindness into cooperative skills of ever increasing sophistication and power.

But as natural as it is for babies to be socially responsible, they are also naturally capable of being mean. The research is equally clear that babies are born with the capability of distinguishing between good guys and bad guys. Humans have an instinct for knowing the difference, and for rewarding the former and punishing the latter. Survival requires knowing who your friends are.

So are we naturally good or naturally bad? Yes.

Richard Dawkins, who wrote The Selfish Gene, points out that we are also wired with a saving grace: the ability to increase the likelihood that a stranger will end up being a friend. That’s why a baby’s first move is to smile. It’s a test: will we smile back? Each of us (from birth) has the capability of acting as if the other person is “one of us” and therefore worthy of our niceness. Treating others as if they are friends increases the likelihood that they will be friendly. It’s just good game theory.

What then are we to do? How should a parent teach social responsibility and raise a child who is thoughtful and kind? Children fulfill our true expectations of them, not what we say we expect of them. Therefore, do what comes naturally—unless this doing comes from paranoia, judgmental perfectionism, or thinking you have a bad self inside you.


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Pamela Swallow April 18, 2014 at 9:16 pm

Thumbs up!

Walt French April 19, 2014 at 3:21 pm

I recently read a claim that a VERY large part of our personality is determined by heredity… maybe 90%.

If so, Rick, your mother must have passed very strong tendencies on openness (a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience), conscientiousness (self-discipline, dutiful action, and aim for achievement) and agreeableness (a general concern for social harmony), plus a distinct absence of neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or depression).

(These are four of the “Big Five” characteristics that I saw quoted, mostly as Wikipedia discusses them.)

Even if we’re largely pre-wired by nature, nurture is where all the fun is, anyways. I was never very interested in whether our kids were inherently good or bad; they were who they were and it was my job to help them prosper in, and help form the world. No matter how pre-disposed a kid is to being affable or socially-caring, he picks up on how his parents live, and can enjoy the basic games and exercises that put those attitudes into practice.

Rick April 21, 2014 at 10:14 pm

Thank you, both. Very thought-provoking, Walt.

Marshall May 3, 2014 at 6:53 am

So appreciated this, Rick. I have often felt the resonance of myths, stories and movies wherein a character is “possessed” by evil forces. This is a universal theme due to the facets of human nature you have presented in the article. In pensive moments, my little philosopher, James, and I used to hash out the primary question, “Why be good instead of bad?”, “Is it useful to be one or the other?” Over the years, he eventually boiled it down to quality of life with other good people. You could trust them more often. Bad guys do what they want and their feelings and appetites guide their actions. It is intoxicating and primal, but not “useful” in modern times. No matter how powerful and fun they may feel as characters, pirate captains and Darth Vader always have to sleep with one eye open. (…hard with an eye-patch or mask…) Thanks for all the great work! MC

Marty Dutcher May 6, 2014 at 7:00 am

Very insightful post, Rick, and I am totally on board with Walt’s last paragraph, I’m sure that’s no surprise given my “good-bad/right-wrong'” paradigm replacement work. A question for you and Walt: re number 5 of the “Big Five”: is the term “neuroticism” usually seen as a negative (bad), unwanted, or unnecessary characteristic?

You have shared some useful ways that what a parent thinks can influence a child’s view of him/herself. An underlying question that keeps reappearing in discussions on behavior is the question, who are we, really? I haven’t found any particular answer, when believed by someone, that relieves the issue of the source of problematic (unworkable) human behavior.

Re “neuroticism”: This morning I was considering asking two new questions of parents in my workshops as awareness-raising exercise to explore whether a tendency to be out of control is wired in, a survival necessity, or not. That is, is it something to be appreciate rather than something to try to get rid of? My experience tells me that accepting something gives us more power with regard to it than does resisting it. So, question #1 would be, what are you in control of in your life? Circumstances? Thoughts? Feelings? Actions? Your children? etc. Question #2 would be, when, and under what specific circumstances, are you NOT in control of your behavior (behavior meaning whatever you express explicitly or implicitly)? Certainly, when we get upset, we have lost control (rarely do we say to ourselves, “I’m going to get upset now … that will work”). And our children see us getting upset, don’t they? What could that mean to them if we are telling them “don’t …” (about themselves, about parents, about what it means to be an adult)? We have a lot of explaining to do, and that, when we are not in a teaching mode or assessment mode, is where the fulfillment in parenting frequently might lie when fulfillment is not currently present.
Much appreciation for the post!

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