Tag Archives: child behavior

If the Ugly Sister Got the Prince: Teaching Your Kids About Unfairness 

One of my favourite stories growing up was Cinderella – not the Disney one, but the beautifully worded and sumptuously illustrated Ladybird Fairytale, with the three royal balls, satin slippers, and sisters that were beautiful but so bad tempered that they appeared ugly. I read and reread that story so many times, mainly coveting the three increasingly beautiful ball gowns, but the subliminal message was clear: be good and kind and good things will happen to you. Be greedy and mean and you will get nothing but bitterness. This is a good message that we all try to teach our children, and we try to reinforce it as we bring them up: from the beginning we teach the difference between right and wrong with praise and reprimand, reward and punishment. But what happens when they grow up and see that others around them sometimes do the wrong thing and get away with it? Or when they do the right thing and lose out?

“Er, excuse me - actually, it was my shoe… Oh, never mind.”

“Er, excuse me – actually, it was my shoe… Oh, never mind.”

I first started thinking about this when we went to a local Easter Egg Hunt. It shouldn’t really be called a “hunt”, more of a “scramble” (ha, ha!) as the eggs are just scattered in full view on a flat field and someone shouts “Go!”, opens the flood gates and the children run all together to grab some for their Easter basket. All the children are told at the beginning that the maximum they can collect is four, so that there are enough to go around. But of course many children completely ignore this rule and I could see them with overflowing baskets filled with at least twenty eggs. My two have had fairness so drilled into them that they obligingly picked up their allotted four and moved off. But they noticed that other children had ignored the rule, and not only had they not got into trouble, they were actually benefitting from disobeying as they had far more chocolate than those children who were being good. It’s essentially the equivalent of the ugly sister successfully forcing her foot into the slipper and the prince giving her a full-on kiss on the mouth.

Of course, as a parent, if you notice this injustice you can counteract it to a certain extent, by providing an extra treat for having been good. But you can’t take away the fact that those other children have still ended up being rewarded for their bad behaviour, and will probably continue to do so as their parents clearly don’t see a problem with it! So how do I teach this reality to my children, when it is so different from the message they are getting at home, or from the poetic justice they read about in their stories? How do I make sure that they continue to choose to do the right thing, when they see themselves lose out because of it?

Partly, I can explain that although those children have the immediate reward of more chocolate, there are less tangible, indirect disadvantages to their behaviour. In the long-run their greediness will mean they will have trouble maintaining friendships as people won’t enjoy being around them. But this is another way of teaching that in the end justice will be served, and this isn’t always the case. I know from my own experience at school that those children who are pushy and unpleasant never seem to be short of like-minded friends. I can’t really judge the quality of their friendship, but I think once you are getting into those technicalities, the message of justice you are trying to teach your children has got a little lost.

So there needs to be a more robust answer that I give my children when I am encouraging them to do something that, although right, means they end up with less than those who are doing wrong. I think the only way to do it is to be honest: life is unfair at times, others will get away with being naughty, but external reward is not why we try to do the right thing in the first place. We do the right thing because it is the right thing. But how do you make a child understand the value of this?

I always try to explain why something is right, and mainly it involves telling them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. “Think of the children who ended up without any eggs because of those other children’s greediness. How would you feel if it were you?” Their stock response to my “How would you feel?” question (I do it a lot!) is always “Sad.” They obviously get the gist, but I do try to increase the vocabulary so they understand the different emotions involved: disappointed, frustrated, angry, upset, hurt… Children usually start out very self-centred – you have to teach empathy. But I believe that once you open their eyes in a consistent way to other people’s feelings, it’s a form of enlightenment that stays with them for life.

I would like to believe that those greedy children will eventually learn empathy (and some manners!) but the reality is that many of them probably won’t, and may never even realise there is value in behaving differently. They will never know the happiness that comes from making someone else happy. So, if the ugly sister gets the prince – do you want Cinderella bitter about the injustice? No, we want her happy that she didn’t marry a capricious prince, and bold enough to leave her tyrant sisters in order to do some charitable work for people who deserve it. Justice needn’t always be poetic, just personal.


Image source: Ladybird Books Ltd. See it on Amazon here




Naughty or nice?

Naughty or nice?

I am going to admit to something that is taboo for a grown-up to say. Especially for one who has been a teacher and professes to love children. But here it goes: There are some kids I just don’t like. I know that sounds mean; how can I dislike a small child? But when I became a teacher I learnt that children are smaller versions of grown-ups: some you love, some you think are OK, and there are just a couple you really have an aversion to. (The trick is not to show it of course!)

It was brought home to me the other day when my daughter told me something that had upset her at school. This is a new school for her, and her first time in a proper big school, having only attended a small Montessori until now. She has settled in amazingly well, and is so eager to please her teacher. She was working hard on making a pattern with coloured wooden shapes, and a boy threw something at her work. She asked him to stop, but then he did it again and upset all the shapes and the pattern she had been making, and there was no time to start again. I asked if she had told the teacher, which she had, and the teacher had told the boy off, so at least I knew it had been dealt with.

She was obviously upset by the fact he had ruined what she had been working on so hard, but what mostly had upset her was the fact that he had seemed so pleased about it. She told me, “He looked happy that he had damaged it and upset me, mummy.” She was so confused by this idea. I could feel my inner protective-lioness creeping up. Just who was this beast-child? I wanted to go and tell him exactly what I thought of him. There is nothing like upsetting my child to bring about my taboo-hatred. Here was my sweet little girl with nothing but kindness and generosity in her heart, being exposed to deliberate meanness. She just could not understand why someone would derive pleasure from upsetting another person. To be honest, I’m a grown-up and I still don’t get it. I felt a little chink of her innocence being taken away.

Up till now I’ve always tried to explain naughty behaviour in other kids as having a cause – either they want attention, or they are tired, or they have got into bad habits. Just because someone does something you don’t like, it doesn’t mean you should stop liking them. But what about those people who just get a kick out of annoying others? Children often start out pretty self-centred, and generally have to be taught compassion and sympathy. But we all know adults that don’t ever develop it, and they were all children once.

You know when you send your children to school that you are letting them into the world without you, to fend for themselves in that brutal social jungle called the playground. This won’t be the last time my daughter has to cope with someone behaving in a way that upsets her. We all have to learn that while we shouldn’t put up with people being mean, it’s something everybody experiences from time to time. I have to teach her that it’s perfectly reasonable to be upset by that behaviour, and to tell the teacher, but that at the same time some kids are just like that, and to try to concentrate on the good things that happened at school.

This was a small incident of course, but it played on my mind how I should approach teaching my children to cope with unpleasant behaviour in others. Finding the balance between being patient and compassionate of others’ bad behaviour, while not accepting being a victim of it, is a tricky business. I try to teach them to find the good in people, and look for what may be provoking the less desirable traits; the “even good people do bad things” approach. I think it makes for a much more tolerant society if we do. But I also have a responsibility to teach them that there are some people you are just not going to like, and that is perfectly normal. That’s how we feel as adults, and so we should expect no differently of our children. It’s just important to ensure they know how to draw that distinction, and not be overly accepting, nor overly intolerant.

Of course that applies to me too. And I like to I think I’m pretty clear on how I draw my distinctions, as a few days later I intervene when my son is upset with my daughter: It turns out she was gleefully breaking up a sand pile he had been making. “What are you doing?” I say. “You know that was upsetting him. Why would you do that when you wouldn’t like it done to you?” “Oh, sorry Mummy.” She says, chastised. A time-out ensues. “Ah well,” I think to myself. “She must be over-tired…”

Learning for Life, not for Rewards

The book that has had the most effect on me in in my life, in terms of how I look at the world, is a piece of non-fiction called Next of Kin by Roger Fouts. Fouts was a research assistant on the very first project teaching a chimp American Sign Language (“Project Washoe”). The book taught me many things: the process of language acquisition, the origins of human language, the profound similarity between humans and chimps and the vanity of thinking we are so different from other animals. What Fouts learnt from researching chimps was that we should not be researching chimps. (He went on to found a sanctuary for laboratory chimps.)

There are so many aspects of the chimps’ behaviour that give us insight into human behaviour that I could not possibly mention them all here. However, I will share one right now, which has been playing on my mind as I think about how I teach my children. It is a passage where Fouts describes the process of learning. He states that conditioning, which is often used to “teach” research animals to behave a certain way, is entirely contrary to learning. A system of reward and punishment actually hinders a subject’s natural capacity and curiosity to learn. Fouts quotes Desmond Morris when he observed chimps doing freehand drawings. Chimps love to draw, much as young children do. Initially the chimps would take a long time over each drawing, carefully making the desired lines on the page. But once the researchers started to give a reward each time the chimp did a drawing, hoping to increase the frequency of the activity, an interesting thing happened: the quality of what each chimp produced went markedly down. Morris says

 Any old scribble would do and then it [the chimp] would immediately hold out its hand for the reward. The careful attention the animal had paid previously …was gone, and the worst kind of commercial art was born!

When I read this I was immediately struck by what that meant in terms of teaching my children. Were the sticker charts I sometimes get out for them in fact holding them back?

I have been teaching my children to read and write for the last 18 months while living abroad. Initially, I would do activities with them to teach them a particular sound, and I would give them a sticker for each activity they did. They had a sticker chart to mark their progress, with the promise of a little gift or treat once the chart was completed. This worked quite well, although I noticed they were much keener to do the work when their chart was very near completion. All of a sudden they wanted to read three books in a row, or do multiple writing activities to reach the goal. Of course that’s not really what I wanted, as reading three books in a row without much care isn’t as useful as one carefully read book a day for three days. I also noticed that once a new sticker chart was started, they were much less interested in doing the work, as the promised treat seemed a long way off.

This isn’t really surprising behaviour, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the sticker chart itself might be a stumbling block to their learning. Without realising it, I had made the achievement of stickers appear more desirable than the achievement of being able to read a book. I started to think about the fact that if I wanted them to do reading and writing, they needed to want to do it too. So I had to make the activity attractive enough that to capture their interest and curiosity. As Fouts says,

Learning cannot be controlled; it is out of control by design. Learning emerges spontaneously, it proceeds in an individualistic and unpredictable way, and it achieves its goal in its own good time.

This is wonderful in theory, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes I just feel out of ideas, and often they would probably rather play freely than do what I suggest. And sometimes you just need your children to learn what you are teaching. But the times when I have been a little more imaginative, the children have been much more engaged and able to concentrate for longer. I also avoid giving them a sticker for an activity that they have enjoyed, so that they don’t get the idea that what they just did was in fact work!

All this also made me question the use of sticker charts, or regular rewards, in general. I’ve watched Super Nanny – I’ve seen the results of a well-used sticker chart. But is it possible that we are made to believe that they are the only way to get our children to behave or do what we want? Should we be conditioning our children so readily? Maybe we need to take more effort to make the behaviour or activity an end in itself. The problem with giving consistent rewards for a given behaviour is that once you take away the reward, the behaviour may disappear also. I don’t want my children to stop reading because I don’t give them a sticker after each book. I want them to pick up the book because they enjoy reading. In the same way, I don’t want my children to stop eating their vegetables because they aren’t getting a sticker for it; I want them to eat vegetables because they understand it’s good for them. If conditioning inhibits natural learning, I think it also inhibits natural good habits.

I’m certainly not suggesting we should not reward children for doing something good. I think encouragement and praise are very important for children and adults alike. I just think that when we give an automatic reward consistently each time a child does something we want, we are teaching he or she the value of rewards, rather than the intrinsic value of the behaviour. There are always times when the benefit of what we want our children to do is much more obvious to us than to them, and I am not opposed to a good dose of bribery in those cases. And sometimes I find that the use of rewards is the only way to promote certain behaviours that I have failed to cajole, explain or rant into being. But before I reach out for the trusty sticker chart again, I will try to see what I can do to turn something that I want my children to do into something that they want to do for themselves.