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Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

“How to be a better parent” is discussed endlessly on the internet. But what we don’t see enough of is research-backed advice that can make your kids both more ethical and more successful.

And I don’t mean “gets good grades” successful. I mean kids who go on to make a name for themselves with breakthroughs that help improve the world for everyone.

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the New York Times bestseller, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.

His awesome new book is Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World and not only does it give tips on how all of us can be more successful but it has research-backed solutions for how to be a better parent.

Want to raise kids that are movers and shakers as well as ethical citizens? I gave Adam a call to find out what you and I need to know…

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1) Ask Kids, “What Would Harry Potter Do?”

As a parent, you want to be a good role model. But what Adam found was that while parents are important role models in terms of morals, they may not be the best when it comes to career if you want your kids to really soar. Here’s Adam:

So where do the best career role models comes from? Oddly enough, it might be fiction.

From Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World:

Kids who go on to mold the future of the world we live in need to see past the day to day and dream of what might be possible. Here’s Adam:

This strategy of leveraging a child’s favorite fictional character can even get kids to eat better. Brian Wansink of Cornell found that asking children, “What would Batman eat?” got kids to pick apple slices over french fries. Here’s Brian:

Research shows that thinking about fictional characters you love can help you make better decisions. In fact, thinking about superheroes can even make you physically stronger.

(To learn the 4 new parenting tips that will make your kids awesome, click here.)

Okay, so you’ve got wizards and Batman on your side now. But how many rules should you set for your kids? The right answer just might be “zero”…


2) Emphasize Values Over Rules

Research shows that most families have an average of six rules for children. But what about the families of kids who scored as highly creative?

Their families averaged less than one rule. Here’s Adam:

Kids need rules but making things so concrete might encourage them to be little lawyers who look for loopholes. By emphasizing values over rules, it starts a good conversation about right and wrong.

This way, children internalize ethics and are more likely to do the right thing because they generate rules for themselves. Here’s Adam:

(To learn the #1 mistake parents make when arguing with kids, click here.)

Okay, we’ve tossed the rules and we’re focused on values. Awesome. Now what’s the right way to praise good behavior? Sorry, that’s another trick question. Don’t praise good behavior at all…

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3) Praise Character, Not Actions

Next time your kid does something kind, don’t tell them, “What you did was nice.” Nope. What should you tell them?

“You’re a really nice person.”

Don’t praise the action, praise their character. When they see good behavior as part of their identity, they’re more likely to make good choices in the future. Here’s Adam:

What happens when you ask kids “to be helpers” instead of “to help”? They’re up to 29% more likely to clean up after themselves.

From Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World:

(To learn the science of raising happy kids, click here.)

Alright, no praising good behavior. How do you correct bad behavior? Turns out the best way to punish might be to explain


4) Explain How Bad Behavior Affects Others

During World War 2, there were non-Jews who put their lives on the line to save Jews from the Holocaust. What did these rescuers have in common?

They were more than three times as likely to have had parents who focused less on punishment and more on explaining how bad behavior affected others.

This emphasis on explanation is also disproportionately seen in both kids who don’t commit crimes and children that go on to make a difference in their chosen field. Here’s Adam:

What’s the secret sauce here? Two ingredients: it helps kids develop both empathy and guilt. Here’s Adam:

Plenty of research backs Adam up. Studies show guilt works. And people who feel guilt are better leaders and better friends. Adam quotes Erma Bombeck who said:

(To learn how to have a happy family, click here.)

Let’s round up all these great ideas from Adam and learn the secret to dealing with the flood of parenting advice that makes raising successful kids such a challenge…

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Sum Up

Here’s what Adam had to say about how to be a better parent:

  • Ask kids, “What would Harry Potter do?” Little wizards can be a big help in getting kids to do the right thing.
  • Emphasize values over rules. Get values right and they’ll build the rules themselves.
  • Praise character, not actions. Don’t make good choices seem like one-time things. Help them craft a positive identity.
  • Explain how bad behavior affects others. Empathy and guilt will forge them into awesome adults.

There’s an overwhelming amount of parenting advice out there. But Adam has some reassuring thoughts for everyone who wants to raise an ethical child that goes on to make a difference in the world. Here’s Adam:

You don’t need to struggle to memorize a thousand pieces of advice when it comes to instilling that creative spark in a young mind. It’s more important to make sure you’re not extinguishing that flame.

The spark is already there. Just nurture it, support it and give it love.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.


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