I have described before that I think a good philosophy to live by is “Try not to be a jerk”. While it is more limited in scope and not as elegant or high-minded as some of the more well known ones like treating others as you would like them to treat you, it has the advantage that jerk behavior is easily recognizable in pretty much every situation and thus can be more easily avoidable if one wants to.
So naturally my attention was caught by this article that had the title How to Raise Kids Who Don’t Grow Up to Be Jerks (or Worse). It consists of an interview with Melinda Wenner Moyer, the author of a book that discusses how to raise children to not be jerks. (The book’s title is actually How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes which is pretty much the same thing.)
Moyer says that the key is helping children develop a theory of mind.
Moyer probes the research on how to encourage kids to be generous, honest, helpful and kind. She reviews studies on how to instill egalitarian beliefs and make sure kids know how to stand up against racism and sexism
One of the core questions I had was, “How do I raise my kids to be generous and kind?” A lot of what we hear is about the importance of teaching giving and generosity. But the research I kept coming across stemmed from how we talk about feelings. That’s surprising—why would that have anything to do with how generous children would become? It became clear that helping our kids understand their feelings gives them the capacity to understand others’ feelings and helps them make decisions to help their friends and be more generous toward them. This is part of something called theory of mind—how to understand others’ feelings. Research suggests that the more parents talk about their feelings and other peoples’, the more kids are likely to be generous and helpful.
We have this idea that there is a type of kid that is a bully. But it’s not just a bad seed who becomes a bully. Anybody can bully. We need to have regular conversations with our kids about this. Some of the research has found that kids who engage in bullying behaviors often don’t realize their behavior is hurtful. It comes back to the idea of talking about feelings. Sometimes they aren’t intentionally trying to hurt other people—they don’t understand the impact of what they’re doing.
Sociopaths clearly act without regard to the feelings of others. The article does not discuss whether this is because they do not have a theory of mind and thus cannot comprehend how others might feel about their actions or whether it is that they can comprehend but just don’t care. The book likely goes into that.