Kids Listen Better When You Appeal to Their Sense of Morality

Photo: Stanislav Solntsev/Getty Images

Even if you don’t spend much time around kids now, you’ve been a kid yourself at some point — which means you probably know that “because I said so” is one of those phrases where nobody really wins. If you’re the kid on the receiving end, it’s somewhere between annoying and maddening, depending on what you’re being told to do. And for the adult doing the saying so, it’s only a temporary fix at best.

As Michelle Woo recently noted in Lifehacker, following the rule simply for the sake of following the rule doesn’t offer much appeal. Without context, you may get compliance, but you won’t be doing much to contribute to the kid’s broader understanding of what is and isn’t okay behavior. It’s like that old saying about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish: Tell a kid to do what you say, full stop, and they might listen in that instance; explain the reasoning behind your request, and they’ll be able to fit it into their broader sense of right and wrong, storing the information away to apply to another situation later on.

And that’s especially true, Woo argued, if your reasoning brings other people into the equation, a piece of advice she picked up while reading Wharton management professor Adam Grant’s 2016 book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. “Highlight consequences for others directs attention to the distress of the person who may be harmed by an individual’s behavior, fueling empathy for her,” Grant wrote. “It also helps children understand the role that their own actions played in causing the harm, resulting in guilt.”

It also helps stop kids from shrugging off the potential ramifications of whatever bad thing they’re trying to do. “When people are told that certain behaviors come with personal consequences,” Woo wrote,  “they rationalize. For kids, that might look something like this”:

Parent: “Stop climbing up the slide. You’ll get kicked in the face when a kid comes down.”

What the child is thinking: “Well, I’ve done this 27 times before and emerged unscathed, so yeah, I feel pretty confident about my current course of action.”

But when consequences for others are included (“Stop climbing up the slide. You not letting a friend slide down, and she’s sad”), the magical empathy/guilt combo kicks in.

Kids are also deeply concerned with fairness, a trait that pushes them to keep meticulous track of who owes them favors, but can also have the sunnier side effect of turning them into little altruists who take the same joy out of sharing a reward as they do from reaping it themselves. Telling them they’re screwing up an innocent person’s day, then, has a lot more of a kick to it — after all, that bystander didn’t do anything to deserve whatever they’re about to get. And each time a kid evaluates the situation and chooses to listen for someone else’s sake, it pushes their burgeoning sense of morality just a little further along.

Kids Listen Better If You Appeal to Their Sense of Morality