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Encouraging ethical behavior

Encouraging ethical behavior

Part two of a commentary on the New York Times article “Raising a Moral Child” by Adam Grant.

  • When children cause harm they usually feel either guilt (remorse) or shame
  • Remorse focuses on the behavior, shame focuses on the person
  • Remorse is a more beneficial response and should be encouraged
  • Parents need to practice the behaviors they wish to see in their children

Encouraging ethical behavior (download)

Yesterday we were talking about bringing up moral children–and also moral adults–and how to give feedback. And that when you want to encourage somebody to have good self-esteem and to think of themselves as an ethical person or a generous person or something like that then it’s good to say, “Oh, you are a helpful person,” or, “you are a generous person.” But also to point out the behavior that they did that was particularly generous or helpful so that they’ll know what you’re praising them for. But just doing the behavior without referencing it to them as a helpful person or a generous person doesn’t have nearly the effect that it does when you talk about who they are as a, you know, “You’re an intelligent person, you’re a generous person,” whatever it is. “You’re a resourceful person.”

Okay, so then the article continues. This is an article from the New York Times.

Praise in response to good behavior may be half the battle, but our responses to bad behavior have consequences, too. When children cause harm, they typically feel one of two moral emotions: shame or guilt.

Here I think instead of guilt it means remorse. Because, to me, guilt and shame are quite similar, and I think you have to have more than those two options. I don’t even know if shame is a moral emotion. There’s different kinds of shame, but here… Let me continue the kind of shame that they’re talking about.

Despite the common belief that these emotions are interchangeable, research reveals that they have very different causes and consequences. Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person [in other words, something’s wrong with ME], whereas remorse is the feeling that I have done a bad thing. [So quite different.] Shame is a negative judgment about the core self, which is devastating: Shame makes children feel small and worthless, and they respond either by lashing out at the target or escaping the situation altogether.

Shaming somebody (whether child or adult), telling them they’re a bad person, they’re useless, they’re (not) worthwhile, they’re stupid, they’re incorrigible…does not help the situation. Because you’re talking about who the person IS, and that makes the person feel like, “I’m beyond hope because something’s really wrong with me.” Which is not the case at all. Because as we know, nobody is beyond hope, everybody has the Buddha potential.

In contrast, guilt is a negative judgment about an action, which can be repaired by good behavior.

We all make mistakes. We can have remorse or regret for our mistakes, and then we make amends. When there’s something going on between two people, it does not matter who started it. I remember when I a kid, whenever I had a quarrel with my brother, “HE started it!” And that was my defense against getting blamed because, you know, parents think, well whoever started it is the one at fault. Not so. It does not matter who started it. It does not matter what the story is. It matters what your response is. That’s the important thing. Somebody can tear you to bits, that’s their problem. Our responsibility is how we respond. Do we respond by getting angry? Do we respond by throwing something at the person? Do we respond by shouting and screaming? That behavior is our responsibility. It doesn’t matter what the other person did to trigger it. We have to be responsible for our own behavior. And not say, “But they said this, they said that, they did this, they did that…” Because as soon as we do that we make ourselves into victims. That means I have no free will, that every way I act, everything I feel is dictated by other people. And so we dig ourselves into a pit and make ourselves into victims, and no wonder we’re unhappy. So what the other person did is not part of your thing. You have to be concerned with what YOU did. We’ve got to be responsible, don’t we? Otherwise it’s ridiculous.

So the action that we have remorse for can be repaired by good behavior. So we take responsibility for what we did, we apologize, we do something kind, we repair the relationship. It does not matter whether the other person apologizes to us or not. That is their business. Our business is if we clean up our side. Do I apologize for what I did? Am I forgiving people? That’s what’s our business. If they apologize or forgive, that’s their business. It’s the same way with our precepts. My precepts are my business. I look out and see if I’m keeping my precepts. I’m not looking out, “How’s everybody else doing?” And in the meantime, being totally ignorant of if I’m keeping my precepts or not. Of course, if somebody does something outrageous then we have to go and talk to them and bring it up. But our primary thing is mindfulness and introspective awareness of THIS one (oneself). Not always, “What’s everybody else doing, how are they doing? Ahhhh! Look what you did.” That’s not going to work.

When children [Or adults] feel [remorse], they tend to experience remorse and regret, empathize with the person they have harmed, and aim to make it right.

Okay, so you can see how the feeling of remorse is something that’s very healing because it allows us to own our actions, regret them, empathize with the other person, and then want to do something to repair the relationship. So when a relationship has been damaged it’s not up to the other person only to repair the relationship. We have to repair the relationship, too. For example, if somebody comes to us and they want to talk, but we turn our back, or we won’t talk to them, that is our responsibility. And if we feel, “Oh, my relationship with so and so isn’t very good,” maybe we have to look at our part in it, because they wanted to talk to us and we turned our back, and we weren’t very friendly. So again, it’s not, “You did this, and you’re not nice to me, and you don’t understand me, and you didn’t apologize, and you you you you…” Because that is just going to make us miserable. It’s like, “What is going on inside of me, am I being responsible for my actions and my behavior?” Because that’s the only thing that we can every change.

In one study … parents rated their toddlers’ tendencies to experience shame and [remorse] at home.

How do you rate your toddler’s tendency to experience shame or remorse?

The toddlers received a rag doll, and the leg fell off while they were playing with it alone. The shame-prone toddlers avoided the researcher and did not volunteer that they broke the doll.

Yeah? Because doing so would mean that I’m a bad person.

The [remorse]-prone toddlers were more likely to fix the doll, approach the researcher, and explain what happened.

Interesting, isn’t it? So the person who feels shame backs away from the incident, doesn’t engage, and they sit there feeling awful and full of shame. The person with remorse tries to rectify the situation. So we have to look and, and if we ever feel shame, remember that’s not a helpful attitude, it’s a wrong conception, and shift our mind into regret and remorse.

If we want our children to care about others, we need to teach them to feel remorse rather than shame when they misbehave. In a review of research on emotions and moral development, one psychologist suggests that shame emerges when parents express anger, withdraw their love, or try to assert their power through threats of punishment.

Sound familiar? That’s what happened in MY family.

Children may begin to believe that they are bad people. Fearing this effect, some parents fail to exercise discipline at all, which can hinder the development of strong moral standards.

So if you don’t discipline the child, and you don’t say, “That’s inappropriate,” then the kid has no standards and they can’t function in society.

The most effective response to bad behavior is to express disappointment. Parents raise caring children by expressing disappointment and explaining why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation.

So it’s not, “You’re a bad person.” It’s, “I know you can do better. I’m disappointed. I know you can do better. This behavior–” Again, talking about the action, not the person. “This behavior is unacceptable.” And, “Here’s how you can rectify it.” Or, with the child you teach them how to rectify it. When you get with somebody who’s older you say, “What do you think are ways to rectify it. What are your ideas how to make up for what happened?”

This enables children to develop standards for judging their actions, feelings of empathy and responsibility for others,

And here “responsibility for others” means recognizing that my behavior affects other people. So it’s not the meditation on how their behavior affected ME. It’s the meditation on how MY behavior affected them.

And it enables the children also to develop a sense of moral identity, and all these are conducive to becoming a helpful person. The beauty of expressing disappointment is that it communicates disapproval of the bad behavior, coupled with high expectations and the potential for improvement: “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better.”

“You’re a capable person, even though you made a mistake in this area, I know that you can do better in the future.” Or, “I know that you have the ability to sort this out.”

As powerful as it is to criticize bad behavior and praise good character, raising a generous child involves more than waiting for opportunities to react to the actions of our children. As parents, you want to be proactive in communicating our values to your children. Yet many of us do this the wrong way. In a classic experiment, a psychologist gave 140 elementary- and middle-school-age children tokens for winning a game, which they could keep entirely for themselves or they could donate some to a child in poverty. They first watched a teacher figure play the game either selfishly or generously, and then preach to them the value of taking, giving or neither. The adult’s influence was significant: Actions spoke louder than words. When the adult behaved selfishly, children followed suit. The words didn’t make much difference — children gave fewer tokens after observing an adult’s selfish bevior, regardless of whether the adult verbally advocated selfishness or generosity. When the adult acted generously, students gave the same amount whether generosity was preached or not — they donated 85 percent more than the norm in both cases.” [Interesting, isn’t it?] “When the adult preached selfishness, even after the adult acted generously, the students still gave 49 percent more than the norm. Children learn generosity not by listening to what their role models say, but by observing what they do.

And so this goes for us also as Dharma practitioners. If we want people to learn, of course we teach, but they’re going to look at our behavior. And our behavior is going to speak much louder than all of our words.

Response to audience comments

Audience: Yesterday you talked about praising character to encourage ethical behavior, but doesn’t this prey on our tendency to set up identities?

Venerable Thubten Chodron: Yes, it does. So praising somebody’s character does prey on setting up identities. But the thing is, that for children they need a positive identity and adults actually need a positive identity, too. And then you can begin to see through and see how that identity is just conceptually constructed. But people need to have that… It involves grasping at the self. But it’s a helpful way to encourage the person. It’s like, acting virtuously still involves a view of the personal identity, but it sure beats the non-virtuous way. It’s the same here.

Purifying shame with the four opponent powers

The power of a practice like Vajrasattva to overcome shame is by seeing that shame was the response of a child and children don’t know how to think properly. And so to see, okay, I don’t need to stay stuck in that. The action was not appropriate but that doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. And we purify and then let it go.

Giving praise in the classroom

What you’re saying is as a teacher when you have a whole group of children it’s very good to point out the positive behavior rather than emphasizing the character of one child in front of the other children, but to teach all the children by just speaking of the behavior, whether it’s a good behavior or a bad behavior. And then in the case of good behaviors, maybe saying afterwards to the child, when there aren’t so many people around, “Oh, you were a very kind person to do that.”

Expressing difficulty skillfully

Okay so a comment here that saying, “I’m disappointed in you, again is referring to the character and it could be a subtler form of shaming. Rather than, “I was disappointed that you did that action.” Or, “I was disappointed that the kitchen wasn’t cleaned.” That’s a good way. “I was disappointed that the homework wasn’t done.” Something like that.

Audience: I read a study that was conducted on pre-teens, and they found that when their parents told them to rectify behavior that wasn’t skillful, the pre-teens were often harder on themselves than their parents were.

VTC: People do tend to be much harder on themselves than other people are on them.

Setting high expectations wisely

Another thing is, expressing high expectations of some kids make the kids totally neurotic. Because, “How am I ever going to live up to that.” So I think what it means instead is expressing, “I know that you’re a capable person.” Not that, “I expect you to always behave this way.” But, “I know you’re a capable person,” or, “I know you’re a resourceful person.” Or, “I know that you’re a patient person.” Or something like that. Because we tend to think of expectation with reward. And I don’t think that’s how they were meaning it here. It’s not, “Okay, you gave your brother or sister the ball, now you get an extra dessert.” It’s not like that. Instead of parents setting high expectations like, “You’re GOING to do this.” It’s, “I aspire for you to do this, I know you have the potential.” Something that’s going to encourage the child without making the child feel like if they don’t do it then they’re a disaster.

But what’s very interesting is, in the thick of a moment what do we do? We usually repeat what we’ve heard our parents say. And I cannot tell you how many people have told me that they made a vow before they had kids that they would not speak to their kids the way they were spoken to, and then they say, “I am in the middle of dealing with my 3-year-old, and out of my mouth comes the same words that were said to me that shamed me or made me feel horrible” or whatever it is. So it’s like, to really slow things down sometimes, and not feel like we have to respond exactly immediately. Take, sometimes, even just one second. It’s not even that we have to go away for two days… But some days… You know, in the middle of a heated situation to just pause for a minute and then, okay, how am I going to talk to this person.

So when the parent, or whoever it is, the teacher, says, “I’m angry,” or, “I’m upset, I need a time out to calm down.” That it gives the child a chance to reflect on their own behavior, and sometimes the child will come to the parent and then say, “I didn’t do that in a good way. I could have done that better.” Or whatever it was.

But it’s interesting how in the heat of a moment we feel like, “I’ve got to respond immediately otherwise the world is going to fall apart!” Like, “Somebody said this and that so I have to, right this very moment, stop it.” Then we get really uncontrolled, don’t we?

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.