“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.
It 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.