“You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, they behave better.” – Pam Leo
Nearly eight years ago, I found the above words by Pam Leo to be absolutely true, and this truth led me down the path of connection-based parenting for which I am so grateful to have followed. When I used punishments such as time-out and tricks like behavior charts, my son’s behavior became increasingly difficult and we were locked in what I perceived to be constant power struggles. I felt like my son was always struggling to gain the upper hand when really he was only struggling to regain our connection. When I provided his attachment needs, he felt better. He was able to rest in our relationship, and his behavior improved.
I recently saw a group of studies based on the self-determination theory that explains once again why relationship (or relatedness) is key. The self-determination theory is a theory of motivation which says that people have three basic psychological needs – competency, autonomy, and relatedness. The studies showed that when people feel connected to others, they are more kind and helpful. In one experiment, the researchers asked participants to write about a time when they felt a close bond with someone else. The participants were then asked how willing they were to perform 5 pro-social behaviors over the coming weeks, including helping a stranger and giving money to charity. Just thinking about their close connection boosted their altruistic impulses, and they were not only more motivated to do good, but they were spurred into action.
Psychologist Michael Tomasello designs experiments to watch children’s altruism and cooperation. He echoes the truth that people, including small children, are naturally good. He says, “From when they first begin to walk and talk and become truly cultural beings, young human children are naturally cooperative and helpful in many—though obviously not all—situations. And they do not get this from adults; it comes naturally."
So, taking this knowledge that 1) children are naturally cooperative, kind, and good and 2) relatedness boosts altruistic impulses and motivates people to good pro-social behaviors, what can we do as parents to raise children who are altruistic? The answer is simple yet profound. It’s about relationship. It always has been, and yet we’ve lost our way, quite literally, around the rat maze because we have become focused on rewards and punishments to influence our children’s behavior.