You Can Offer A Kid An Education, But You Can’t Make Him Care

by Michael F. Mascolo, Ph.D.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

This is a time honored adage, to be sure. For years, I’ve heard variants of it from secondary school teachers and college professors alike. You can make students come to class, but you can’t make them care about their learning.

We offer incentives (grades) to students for completing their work and for doing their best work. I often wonder what would happen if we graded students on how much they invested in – that is, cared about – their learning. I sometimes say this to my colleagues. I often (but not always) receive a response like, “Well, you can give them rewards to make them do something, but you can’t give them rewards to make them care.” In other words, you can lead a horse to water, and so forth.

offerkideducationIt doesn’t take very long to realize that this everyday way of thinking is mostly wrong. In fact, something more like the opposite is true. Virtually all of our parenting is based on the idea that we can, in fact, influence how our children think, feel and act. Literally hundreds of studies in developmental psychology show that children who engage in the highest levels of pro-social behavior and rule-following behavior are those who have internalized the basic rules, values and beliefs of their parents and of the larger community.

In his classic work on parenting, Martin Hoffman studied the effect of punishment, threats of love withdrawal and induction on the development of children’s rule following behavior. He found that neither punishment (e.g., sending a child to her room) nor the threat of withdrawing love (e.g., “I won’t like you if you do that”) promoted high levels of rule following. However, parents who explained the basis of their family rules to their children had children who engaged in the highest levels of rule following.

What does this mean? It means that children who are taught to understand the reasons for a given rule are more likely to internalize those rules and thereupon make those rules their own. In other words, parents who explain the basis of their values to children have children who are more likely to internalize those values and then act upon them. Hoffman called this process – explaining the basis of rules and values – induction. When a parent explains the reasons for her values, beliefs and rules, she is more likely to induce her child to accept her values.

It turns out that, over the long-term, parents play a central role in inducing their kids to care. This should not be surprising. Imagine that you were visiting a friend’s home for some coffee and dessert. As your friend invites you in, you see an assortment of cookies on the dining room table. Imagine that your friend, about to leave the room, says, “Don’t eat any of the cookies.” What would you think? How would you feel? What would you do?

You would certainly find this odd! Here she is, inviting me for dessert, and she asks me not to touch the cookies! You’d try to figure out the reason why she doesn’t want you to eat the cookies. Perhaps you would respect her wishes and simply not eat any cookies. Or, perhaps, you might think – there are so many cookies! If I snatch just one, she won’t notice.

The situation would be very different, if, when your friend was about to leave the room, said to you: “Those cookies are for my daughter’s book group that is going to meet in a few minutes. There is one cookie for each person in the group, so we can’t eat those. We’ll be having chocolate velvet cheesecake in the other room.”

What has happened here? Your friend has explained the reason behind her request. Knowing the reason, you are entirely willing to comply! You have no thoughts that your friend is trying to keep something from you; doesn’t trust you to keep your hands to yourself; or is just being rude. You know the reasons behind her request. Once we know the reasons – and assuming that the reasons are, well, reasonable – the entire situation changes. You want to comply with your friend’s request. You may even feel that you might want to be more like her – a loving mother and giving friend.

Of course, it’s the same for children! The statement, “Never open the china cabinet!” does not have the same capacity to induce rule following as “This china cabinet was my grandmother’s. It is old and precious to me. If you open it, it can break the hinges – see, right here! If you want to touch something inside, tell me and we’ll look at it together.” The statement, “Don’t jump on the couch” does not have the same force as saying, “When you jump on the couch, it gets dirty and messy and then I have to clean it.” The statement, “Never hit your sister” does not have the same force as “Never hit your sister! Hitting hurts! How would you feel if she were to hit you? When you hit, that is not going to make someone like you or want to play with you.”

We all know, of course, that explanation alone – without enforcement – is often (but by no means always) insufficient to bring about rule compliance in the short term. The point here is that over the long term, explanation leads to the induction of rules, and to the internalization of values. When we explain the basis of our rules, values and beliefs, we teach our children to care. In fact, that is the nature of our work as parents. Our primary business is teaching children how to care.