Kids Not Behaving? Psychologist Says Teaching Empathy Can Help

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photo: Stephanie Young Merzel via Flickr

We all know kids misbehave sometimes, but how to get them to stop? Psychologists have suggested that giving children a rationale as to why they should behave is a solid tactic, but what else can you do to make it work?

Framing it in terms of how their action effects others, writes Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and Wharton professor, in his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World, can make a huge difference. Grant cites a study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner, who compared the childhood experiences of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust with their neighbors who didn’t. While the bystanders’ parents usually focused on enforcing rules for their own sake, parents of rescuers gave explanations of why behaviors were inappropriate and encouraged their children to consider the impact of their actions on others.

The empathy/guilt combination motivates grownups, too. Grant and his colleague David Hofmann did an experiment where they posted two different signs in a hospital. All they changed was one word from “hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases,” to “hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” With the second sign, medical personnel washed their hands 10% more often and used 45% more soap and gel. If it can work on doctors, using children’s natural empathy can change their behavior, too.

Do you use empathy to motivate your kids? Tell us in the comments below.

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