When Melinda Wenner Moyer looked around in the autumn of 2018, she saw everywhere what she would describe as “assholes”. In the US and the UK, hate crime was – and is – rising. Across the world, #MeToo allegations continued to come. Donald Trump was in the White House and “I just felt like there was so much bad behaviour everywhere,” says Moyer. “I started thinking about my kids and worrying about ‘Who were they going to become?’ and ‘What were they learning from this behaviour?’ if they were seeing it on TV or hearing about it from their friends.” Moyer realised: “What I wanted more than anything else was for my kids to not grow up to be assholes.”
Moyer, a science journalist and parenting columnist, decided to go through the research and ended up writing a book with the pleasing title How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes. In the vast realm of parenting advice, there was plenty on diet, sleep and how to turn your child into a superhuman genius, but not a great deal on how to create a kind, compassionate person.
“I think there are probably a couple of reasons for this,” she says. Some parents have a fear, she believes, that instilling kindness “is going to be to their child’s detriment – they’re going to be walked all over, they’re not going to be successful, it’s going to hold them back in some way. But when I looked at the research on this, it clearly suggested the opposite – that kindness is actually strongly associated with success.
“There was one study where researchers followed boys in particular and found that the boys who were the most helpful and generous in kindergarten ended up earning the most money when they were 25 – and were the least likely to be in prison.”
The other reason, she thinks, is that if parents believe themselves to be good people – in other words, not an asshole (or arsehole, depending on where you are from) – that will be enough to ensure our children will be, too. “I think there is something to that,” she says. Much of her book is about modelling good behaviour. “But I was also surprised by the research that really challenged some of my parenting instincts.”
For instance, in her chapter on raising children who don’t become racist – aiming specifically at white parents – Moyer recalls explaining to her then five-year-old daughter why a Black Lives Matter protest, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, was on the front page of the newspaper. Before she had looked at the research, she would have questioned going into so much detail about racism with her children. There is “the idea that white parents shouldn’t talk about race. The research shows it’s very common that white parents in particular espouse ‘colourblind’ parenting, where we think that if we don’t talk about race with our kids then they won’t see it, they won’t make a big deal out of it, they’ll be less likely to become racist.
“But the research shows that this is not what happens. First of all, we know that, from the age of three months, babies can discern skin colour – and they like to look at pictures of adults who share the same skin colour as their caregivers. So we know that they can see it and that they’re making judgments based on it.”
When children, being naturally curious, try to make sense of why the world looks the way it does, “they see very easily in our society that most people who have power and prestige and money are white. If parents and teachers aren’t talking about [how] racism is fuelling this hierarchy, then kids come to the simplest conclusion: ‘Well, maybe white people have more power and money because they’re better.’”
Add an embarrassed parent shushing them every time they mention race and “they start to think of race as something bad” – unless parents push back against any stereotypes their child may be developing. A 2011 study cited by Moyer found that children whose (white) parents engaged with them about race became less prejudiced than those whose parents ignored it.
Another area Moyer found counterintuitive was self-esteem. Parents’ well-meaning attempts to boost self-esteem often had the effect of undermining it. “Putting pressure on our kids to do well in school, enrolling them in all the extracurriculars and wanting them to be the best of the best – that undermines their self-esteem, because then they think of our love for them as being contingent on what they do and how they perform,” she says. “Generally speaking, the feeling of being unconditionally loved is one of the most crucial things for healthy self-esteem.” Being overprotective can also harm it. “I feel a lot of parents now are so protective of kids in terms of not wanting them to experience failure or make mistakes.”
Moyer says she didn’t plan to write a parenting book. “The premise kind of felt obnoxious to me, like: ‘Who am I to tell other parents what to do? I don’t know what I’m doing half the time,’” she says, over a video call from her home in the Hudson Valley, New York, where she lives with her husband, an editor of a science magazine, and their two children, who are 10 and seven.
Her childhood was spent largely in Atlanta, Georgia, where her mother was an interior designer and her father a management consultant. She describes their parenting as being in the “authoritative” style – there were boundaries and last-resort consequences, but an environment of love and empathy (as opposed to the “authoritarian” style, which is characterised by strict rules, discipline and coldness).
Writing the book made her revisit her childhood. She says she was “pleasantly surprised” by a lot of what her parents did. “In the early 80s, there were a lot more authoritarian parents and I think mine got a good balance of giving me respect and letting me make choices, but also having clear boundaries. I think there’s only one point in the book where I called them out for something, which is how they used to compare my sister and me. They used to say that my sister was the gregarious one and I was shy – and that definitely stuck with me.”
After a period working for a biotech company, Moyer became a science journalist and, after her son was born, brought her research skills to a parenting column for Slate magazine. It came about, she says with a laugh, because “I had so many questions and I didn’t have any answers … I was like: ‘I’ll use science to get answers.’ Which worked – sometimes.”
For the book, she worked backwards from the idea of what makes an asshole and what parents can do to nurture opposite traits and values. Fostering generosity and helpfulness can mitigate selfishness (among her strategies, she advises being explicit about what is expected and highlighting the impact of children’s actions on other people). As well as chapters on anti-racism, anti-sexism and how to support self-esteem without creating a narcissist, she covers nurturing an honest child, creating harmonious sibling relationships and resilience. “I definitely wanted to include bullying – how do we raise kids who aren’t bullies? What do we know about what primes kids to become bullies?”
She was alarmed by her research that suggested the toxic political atmosphere was having an impact. “There was a study around the time of the [2016 US presidential] election that found that, in school districts that were very pro-Trump, there was an increase in bullying rates in schools compared with schools that were more pro-Clinton.” She points to work done by the Southern Poverty Law Center on hate crimes after the election, which included teachers who reported that they were seeing more hateful behaviour: “Kids who had actually been saying the exact things that Trump had said, like ‘build a wall’. So that’s a little bit more evidence that kids were hearing these things and then thinking: ‘This is OK to do.’”
While Moyer acknowledges in the book that bullying can often be perpetrated by a child who has seen or experienced domestic violence – indeed, much behaviour that could be described as “asshole-ish” could be explained by horrendous home circumstances – there is a huge number of parents who would be surprised to learn that their child is a bully. One study Moyer cites found that nearly one-third of fifth graders (10- to 11-year-olds) admitted to bullying behaviours, yet only 2% of their parents were aware of it.
One theme of Moyer’s book is the importance of being obvious and literal with children. Another is the value of talking about things such as gender, race, sex and pornography, however awkward it may feel. This also includes things that we, or our children, may not even have considered before. “With the research on bullying, I was surprised to read that a lot of kids who bully just don’t understand that what they’re doing is hurtful,” she says. “We need to have these conversations about the fact that sometimes we can intend one thing, but it will have a different impact.” Laurie Kramer, a psychologist who specialises in sibling relationships, told Moyer that many children didn’t realise that their parents wanted them to get on with their siblings; they needed to be told.
Moyer’s book highlights an uncomfortable truth: that we may have to confront our own asshole-ish tendencies – selfishness, unconscious biases, internalised misogyny, an inability or unwillingness to understand other people’s perspectives – before we can expect the same from our children.
Moyer has put much of her research into practice. She says it has changed her family for the better. She has more patience and tries to see things from her children’s perspectives. They have become more generous and think more about working together and helping each other. “I do feel like my kids have gotten along better since I’ve tried some of the sibling strategies,” she says. “They certainly fight still, but there are times when I will see them negotiating in a way that I never used to – proactively trying to problem-solve. I do feel as if there’s less conflict in the house – and I’m less frustrated and angry than I used to be as a parent. I feel like we’re closer because of that.”
Reassuringly, however, she admits she didn’t become a better parent overnight. It took her, she writes, at least six months to start putting it into practice – and she doesn’t get it right all the time. “I certainly make mistakes or do things in ways where later I’m like: ‘That probably wasn’t the most constructive way to handle it.’” But if she shouts or snaps, or handles a situation unfairly or irrationally, she will apologise.
“Sometimes I ask them for advice, like: ‘What do you think I could have done in that moment that would have been more constructive?’ We’re always correcting our kids; I think they really love it when we ask for help and they can give advice. Also, we’re showing how to apologise and that everybody makes mistakes. It normalises the fact that we’re never going to be perfect and that’s OK.”
How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes by Melinda Wenner Moyer (Headline, £14.99) is out now. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.