“You’re OK,” utter many parents instinctively when a young child falls or bumps his or her knee. Typically, the child is unsure at first whether an actual injury has occurred. But the parent’s assumption that all is fine, combined with a lack of evidence (like blood), magically keeps the child from distress. Instead of crying or fretting, the child often follows the parent’s cue and moves on.
Now picture a child seemingly misbehaving. The typical parent’s first utterance is not “You’re OK!” Rather, it tends to be a way of conveying “you are not OK” morally — e.g., “Bad boy (or girl)! There goes my (insert unhealthy label) child!”
This is where it’s helpful to consider one of the best parenting mantras I’ve ever read.
When a child appears to misbehave, “attribute to the child the best possible motive consistent with the facts.” This quote comes from Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. (Kohn notes he learned the mantra from feminist and philosopher Nel Noddings.
Create auspicious cycles, not vicious ones
In those first moments of a child’s apparent misbehavior, Kohn say parents should refrain from catastrophizing, labeling or overreacting. For at first, “we usually don’t know for sure why a child acted the way he did.” Reasons beyond just “badness” may be at play. These could include immaturity, a lack of skill or an innocent desire to explore.
Another reason to attribute the best possible motive: parents’ beliefs about the child can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Kohn writes, “Children construct a theory about their own motives based in part on our assumptions about their motives, and then they act accordingly: ‘You think I’m just plain bad and need to be controlled all the time? Fine. Watch me act as though you’re right.’”
Rather than the vicious cycle of bad behavior that labels can foster, Kohn says assuming your child’s best motives from a young age can develop an “auspicious cycle” of moral development. He adds: “We can help kids to develop good values by treating them as though they were already motivated by those values. They thereby come to believe what’s best about themselves and live up to our trust in them.”
Because I’m a former English professor, Kohn’s parenting mantra reminded me of a similar formulation from the world of poetry.
‘First thought, best self’ parenting
The Beat Generation’s Allen Ginsberg believed in the poetic phrase “first thought, best thought.” For Ginsberg, the first thought humans have about a subject is usually the most truthful, authentic perception. His poetic philosophy championed spontaneous, uncensored lines as a way to describe reality most purely.
Granted, parenting is much different than writing poetry. And many parents’ first thoughts probably should be censored for the sake of our children. But a related, more fruitful revision of Ginsberg’s formulation for parents might be “first thought, best self.”
“First thought, best self” parenting would practice what Kohn preaches about always assuming a child’s best motives. It would also foster the growth of a child’s “best self” by fueling the “auspicious” cycle of self-esteem. In the process, we would be parenting with our “best selves” as well.
Of course, “first thought, best self” parenting is easier said than done. It is very challenging to slow our instincts, revise our assumptions and shift a mindset. But what if the facts do not end up being consistent with a child’s healthy motives? Then the misbehavior must be addressed.
But that initial moment of a parent’s reaction to children’s behavior is very important to their future morality and self-esteem. Just as we reassured children they were physically “OK” when they were little, as they grow we should also reassure them they are morally “OK.”
A final benefit of assuming a child’s best motives when they seemingly misbehave: as they grow older, they learn to attribute the same good motives to the people in their lives. For example, when their friends or even parents do things they don’t like, agree with or understand, they learn to consider possible reasons for such behavior rather than assume the worst before more facts are known. Our modeling can nudge children toward fairmindedness that fuel even more auspicious cycles. Ideally, we can help children learn to make their first thought with their best self.