Assuming that parents decide to give children the freedom to be original, what does it take to foster a sense of right and wrong? Values aren’t formed only by how parents react when children misstep. In the study of Holocaust rescuers and bystanders, when the Oliners asked about the values they learned from their parents, the rescuers were three times more likely than the bystanders to reference moral values that applied to all people. The rescuers emphasized that their parents “taught me to respect all human beings.” While bystanders also held moral values, they attached them to specific behaviors and in-group members-pay attention in school, don’t get in fights with your peers, be polite to your neighbors, be honest with your friends and loyal to your families.
Moral standards are forged in part by what parents say after children do the right thing. The last time you saw a child engage in good behavior, how did you respond? My guess is that you praised the action, not the child. “That was really nice. That was so sweet.” By complimenting the behavior you reinforce it, so the child will learn to repeat it.
Not so fast, says an experiment led by psychologist Joan Grusec. After children shared some marbles with their peers, a number of them were randomly assigned to have their behavior praised: “It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.” Others received character praise: “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.”
Children who received character praise were subsequently more generous. Of the children who were complimented for being helpful people, 45 percent gave craft materials to cheer up kids at a hospital two weeks later, compared with only 10 percent of the children who were commended for engaging in helpful behavior. When our character is praised, we internalize it as part of our identities. Instead of seeing ourselves as engaging in isolated moral acts, we start to develop a more unified self-concept as a moral person.
Affirming character appears to have the strongest effect in the critical periods when children are beginning to formulate strong identities. In one study, for example, praising character boosted the moral actions of eight-year-olds but not five-year-olds or ten-year-olds. The ten-year-olds may already have crystallized self-concepts to the degree that a single comment didn’t affect them, and the five-year-olds may have been too young for an isolated compliment to have a real impact. Character praise leaves a lasting imprint when identities are forming.
But even among very young children, an appeal to character can have an influence in the moment. In an ingenious series of experiments led by psychologist Christopher Bryan, children between ages three and six were 22 percent to 29 percent more likely to clean up blocks, toys, and crayons when they were asked to be helpers instead of to help. Even though their character was far from gelled, they wanted to earn the identity.
Bryan finds that appeals to character are effective for adults as well. His team was able to cut cheating in half with the same turn of phrase: instead of “Please don’t cheat,” they changed the appeal to “Please don’t be a cheater.” When you’re urged not to cheat, you can do it and still see an ethical person in the mirror. But when you’re told not to be a cheater, the act casts a shadow; immorality is tied to your identity, making the behavior much less attractive. Cheating is an isolated action that gets evaluated with the logic of consequence: Can I get away with it? Being a cheater evokes a sense of self, triggering the logic of appropriateness: What kind of person am I, and who do I want to be?
In light of this evidence, Bryan suggests that we should embrace nouns more thoughtfully. “Don’t Drink and Drive” could be rephrased as: “Don’t Be a Drunk Driver.” The same thinking can be applied to originality. When a child draws a picture, instead of calling the art-work creative, we can say “You are creative.” After a teenager resists the temptation to follow the crowd, we can commend her for being a non-conformist.
When we shift our emphasis from behavior to character, people evaluate choices differently. Instead of asking whether this behavior will achieve the results they want, they take action because it is the right thing to do. In the poignant words of one Holocaust rescuer, “It’s like saving somebody who is drowning. You don’t ask them what God they pray to. You just go and save them.”