Monthly Archives: March 2011

Lies, Ethics and Empathy

In Chapter 4 of NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman make some fascinating observations about children's attitudes and behaviours around lying.

For a start, adults are not very good at telling whether kids are lying or not, relying too often on cues like gender and extroversion (p. 75). Even teachers score only 60% accuracy in identifying lies under controlled conditions.

Parents generally believe their kids won't lie, and see lying as a negative behaviour – usually one to be strongly discouraged. But studies show (p. 80) that at three or four most children become active and proficient liers. Interestingly, the kids who best know the difference between the truth and a lie are the ones most likely to lie. Lying is also a complex cognitive task (p. 82). Effective fabrication requires a good understanding of the situation, of people's behaviours, of what may or may not sound credible. 

The problem arises when you think about the range of behaviours that fall under the umbrella of lying. When asked whether they took the money out of mum's purse, parents believe that truth is the best policy. However, what about when grandma gives you a pair of socks for Christmas and asks you how you like them? Dishonesty can become a valued social behaviour in particular situations.

The 'black and white' approach to lying is problematic – it also gets us into trouble when we go back on promises we have made, or sugar-coat situations… behaviours that we see as part of normal behaviour, but a young child will see clearly as 'a lie'. What kids need to start to understand to function well socially (including within the family) is the motivations that underlie 'dishonest' behaviour – and hence why 'lying' is wrong. When asked why lying is wrong, most five year olds will say it's because you get punished for it – good old reward and punishment removing the intrinsic motivator not to lie and replacing it with an extrinsic one. At that age, 38% of kids actually believe that swearing is lying. Why? Because they are both things you can say that you get punished for! (p.84)

Threatening punishment for lying focuses the child on the impact that lies can have on them. They won't lie less – they will get better at it to avoid punishment. Bronson and Merryman's advice is to leverage children's desire to please parents by demonstrating that truth-telling is behaviour that will make mum and dad happy – focus less on lying being bad, and more on honesty being good (p.86).

At the end of the day, we spend a lot of time admonishing kids for lying when many of us do it every day because that's how we get through life. Understanding the effect your lies (and behaviours more generally) will have on others will be the most pragmatic grounding for truth-telling. This is a very teleological approach – justifying the end by the means – but it is the one that most adults claim to operate by. Like so many other social skills, the thing it relies on most heavily is empathy; modelling the thoughts and behaviours of others will inform our decisions when it comes to telling the truth… or not.

No-lose Conflict Resolution (Method III)

By Chapter 11 (pp.194-264) of Parent Effectiveness Training, I think it's fair to say that Gordon has built up a fair amount of expectation about the magic approach to resolving the conflicts that active listening and I-messages have not solved. Unsurprisingly, the method is not some astonishing revelation, more the simple process of;

  • parent and child collaboratively working on the problem, as equals
  • generating possible solutions
  • discussing, evaluating and deciding on a solution
  • both parties implementing the solution that they have been part of

Putting the obvious 'but's to one side, this is a clear, effective articulation of basic conflict negotiation. It is, as Gordon says, exactly the approach used in business, international affairs and elsewhere. Yes, you may have difficulty finding a solution, no it won't always work, but it's a fine start. The key here is that Gordon is recommending a egalitarian, creative, negotiation-based approach to resolving conflict – and that is the heart of what PET is about. It was news in the seventies, and sadly it is still news now.

While Gordon does follow up with some supporting advice, addresses concerns many parents have, and provides numerous models, this is still a bare boned presentation of the technique. If you are looking for more detail on HOW to generate possible solutions, or HOW to decide on one, you will need to look elsewhere.

In summary, he takes a while to get there, and there is nothing revolutionary about the destination. But Gordon clearly and convincingly makes the case for a relationship-based approach to raising kids that is still a long way from the typical, so there is still a valid place for PET as a text worth reading.

Changing Unacceptable Behaviour by Changing the Environment

In Chapter 8 (pp.139-147) of Parent Effectiveness Training, Gordon talks abut the strategy of changing the environment in response to unacceptable behaviour. Instead of trying to resolve a conflict situation, parents may be in a position to change the environment so that the behaviour simply does not occur any longer.

Environmental change can be through techniques such as enriching the environment, impoverishing the environment or limiting the space the child is living in (particularly for younger children). Gordon also discusses the importance of discussing and planning change with kids, and seeing the home as one which is shared with them, rather than one which parents deign to let them live in.


Once Gordon feels he has made his point about the importance of Active Listening in Parent Effectiveness Training, he moves onto the other side of the coin – how parents can effectively communicate to their children.

The key suggestion here is to move from parental communication which focuses on the target of the message (the child), and instaid to focus on the sender (the parent). This is a transition from 'You-Messages' to 'I-Messages' (pp.103-138). The underlying thought here is acknowledging that the 'problems' which parents often need to communicate actually belong to the parent, not the child. When the parent 'owns' the problem, and communicates with an I-Message, they are openly and honestly explaining the situation – this is very different from the various otehr approaches that parents will use when raising a problem. Gordon categorises and critiques these alternative 'You-Messages', from ordering and preaching to giving solutions and threatening.

Given my personal behaviour, I found the negative comments on advising and providing constructive solutions a little challenging. On reflection, I definitely acknowledge that by providing a solution, I am denying someone else the opportunity to create the solution – a fairly subtle kind of dis-empowerment, but an important one if I expect them to be committed to making the solution happen.

Gordon also raised a number of the challenges with I-Messages, particularly the tendency to disguise 'You-Messages' as I-Messages. He also has some interesting comments on anger, which he suggests is not the real thing that needs to be honestly communicated, but is usually a defensive reaction to an original emotion (such as embarassment, or frustration) that needs to be uncovered and communicated.

PET and Active Listening

Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) was a book I have had lying around since my undergraduate (psychology) degree – at my dad's suggestion from memory. It cropped up again last year when we were looking at Gordon's approach as a model for classroom management, so I thought I'd dig it out and re-read it.

Basically, Gordon presents a style of parent-child interaction that is grounded in humanistic counselling approaches. He emphasises the need to move away from the use of power in parent-child relationships, and presents a series of techniques to replace the more accepted ways of dealing with kids. The core of the book is the explication of 'Active Listening', 'I-Messages', and 'No-Lose (or Method III) Conflict Resolution'. In presenting these techniques he also provides extensive critique of the use of 'parental power' in family relationships.

The book is very accessible, if anything it belabours the point a little – particularly if you are already a convert to the approach. I would also suggest that if you want to read it you pick up a copy of the recently revised edition – it was somewhat jarring to keep reading about how parents object to their teenagers running off to hippie protests and smoking pot (the book was written in 1975).

'Active Listening' (pp.29-102, particularly pp.49-55) is something that you may already be familiar with – Gordon presents it here clearly and simply. Through numerous script examples he shows the technique of listening and reflecting back in a non-judgemental way to elicit further discussion. He also emphasises the ned to actually decode meaning and paraphrease in response rather than just 'parroting'. Interestingly, he addresses the fear that you will be 'found out', for using such a strange, artificial way of communicating – and explains (quite rightly) that if you try it you often discover that people seem to go with it quite happily.

As a background to the idea of active listening, Gordon also introduces a encoding/decoding model of listening (p.50). While overly simplistic it does provide a good context to think about communication as a two part process that also includes the listener. 

A bit of a rant on streaming literacy and numeracy

We've had a number of in-class conversations about streaming recently, and I took the opportunity to crystalise my thoughts by responding to another student's posting in a discussion forum about a school they had visited that uses streaming for English and Math and is achieving good NAPLAN results. Thought I might share it here for those that are curious…

Without doubt, if high average NAPLAN scores is all you are seeking to achieve within a school, streamed numeracy and literacy classes are probably a sound strategy. Drilling with 'NAPLAN style' tests is also a sound strategy. As is cutting art, sport, and most of HSIE to give more time to maths and English. How far are you willing to go for those beloved green boxes in the MySchool NAPLAN tables?

The questions that are raised by streaming literacy and numeracy might be;
  • Is this being achieved across the board, or is it primarily the result of better outcomes for one subgroup (say the higher achievers) doing much better, and what implications does that have for everyone else?
  • What are the implications for self-esteem, self-efficacy and
  • Are we content with such an individualistic environment, or are we seeking to create a collegial, collaborative classroom?
  • While we are streaming numeracy and literacy, why not stream art and PE? Is there a single valid reason why you would not pull out all the more athletic or more artistically inclined kids into an 'A' stream for that subject?
  • Teaching numeracy and literacy in a streamed mode means that they are taught exclusive of other KLAs. Does this mean we miss out on the opportunity to create meaningful integration across the curriculum?



‘Shopping the book’ with Ralph Lauren

I noticed today that apparently Ralph Lauren have produced a children’s book (‘The RL Gang: A Magically Magnificent School Adventure’), available as a picture book and a ‘read’ online.

Of course, reading online is much better, because you can enjoy the lovely animation and Uma Thurman’s earnest narration. And more importantly, you can roll-over any of the characters at any point and ‘shop that character’s look’. Don’t you just love Hudson’s Striped Cotton Tee? Why not get one, available at the click of a mouse, in Clay Blue, Chocolate Brown or Weathered Red.

As Ralph Lauren put it, ‘the world’s first shoppable storybook adventure’. Another triumph for quality children’s literature!

[You can read more about it here]

Dick and Jane are No Fun

So it's back into the swing of things – week two and we are already being let loose on unsuspecting seven year olds as part of our English primary curriculum work.

One of the things I have always wondered about is the aversion many teachers and academics seem to have against 'learning to read' books (or 'basal readers' in the lingo). I have always assumed this is because they presented language in questionable ways, or dumbed down something that shouldn't be dumbed down. Conversely, these teachers would speak of the importance of 'quality children's literature', which always seemed a bit lofty to me, but still…

I realised today that the main benefit of literature over readers is simply one of motivation. From a pre-literate age, children (like the rest of us) love stories. Stories capture our interest, and sustain our engagement. It is for precisely this reason that 'story books' (or 'quality children's literature' if you must) are key. If we achieve mastery through practice, then anything that gets us turning page after page will make a difference in building literacy.

Yes, 'Dick and Jane' (and I jest, there is a wide range of language learning texts available, not all of which feature Dick and Jane) can probably teach someone to read. But what child is going to rush over to the book corner to re-discover the excitement of Dick running, or Jane seeing Dick running? There are far better things to do – from sailing over the sea with Max to heeding the word of the Onceler, from listening to Tashi's tales of far away to solving cases with Encyclopedia Brown. Stories that surprise us, characters that delight us, worlds that captivate us. And it is these stories that will stretch us to the increasingly dizzying heights of literacy.