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It's up to grown-ups to teach children right from wrong. Children learn from what we tell them, but they learn even more from watching our actions. If we want children to grow up with strong moral grounding, we adults have to tell them and show them what goodness looks like.

There is a famous experiment from the 1960s. It involves a Bobo doll, a toy with a low center of gravity that bounces upright after it has been knocked down. Researcher Albert Bandura asked children to watch an adult in a room full of toys. Some of the children watched as the adult simply played peacefully with the toys. Other children watched as the adult aggressively hit, punched and hammered the Bobo doll with a mallet, sitting on top of the toy, attacking it and shouting things like "Hit him!," "Sock him!" and "Pow." Sometimes the aggressive adult was punished, sometimes rewarded and sometimes there was no consequence.

Then each child was put into a room filled with toys. In the corner was a Bobo doll and elsewhere a mallet. The children who had seen the aggressive adult rewarded or have no consequence, quickly mimicked the violent behavior. They grabbed the hammer and punched the Bobo doll in the face repeatedly, climbing on top of it and shouting the same words they had witnessed. But the children who saw the adult punished did not attack the Bobo doll.

At the end of the experiment, the researcher told the children who had seen the adult punished that they would not be punished for anything they might do. The majority then gleefully grabbed the Bobo doll and the mallet and proceeded to beat it up.

We all have a mean streak in us. Moral development is the work of taming our instincts.

The encouraging thing about the Bobo doll experiments is that children can be taught to refrain from aggressive behavior. "Don't do that!" along with some meaningful consequence works. Ignoring bad behavior only promotes it. And rewarding aggression allows it to spread.

About the notion of "meaningful consequence," i.e. punishment: Never strike a child. Decades of research is clear and deep. Physical punishment damages a child and damages the child's relationship with the parent. A child needs to understand a clear relationship between behavior and rewards/punishments. Communication plus timeouts and withdrawal of privileges works. More good parenting advice at healthychildren.org.

Aggressive, threatening behavior is in our human DNA, and it is easily triggered. The good news is humans can learn good moral behavior. All of us adults need to be on our guard to challenge those who would make hammering a Bobo doll and screaming at it normative or acceptable behavior. This moment in history is a particularly challenging time for civil behavior.

Before the 2016 elections researcher Chris Crandall led a University of Kansas team to study our prejudices. He asked liberals and conservatives to rank on a 1-to-100 scale how they feel about certain groups -- Muslims, Canadians, blind people, immigrants, women. They also asked another group, what feelings do you think it is OK to express in the U.S.

After the election they asked the same people the same questions. There was an increase in how acceptable it is to express prejudice toward Muslims and immigrants, groups that Donald Trump had targeted in his campaign. There was no change in the acceptability of prejudice toward Canadians and blind people, whom Trump had not disparaged. Liberal and conservatives thought the nation had changed substantially with regard to what was OK to express as a prejudice.

The takeaway for me: We all have prejudices. We all have deep-seated conflictive emotions that tend toward aggression and violence, both physical and verbal. Social norms set important limits on their negative expression.

Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That's the social norm for Christians. That means we must challenge language and behavior that demeans our neighbors. Silence communicates acceptance. We have to let it be known that prejudicial language, from liberals or from conservatives, is unacceptable.

To borrow a phrase from Nancy Reagan. "Just say no!" When you hear an expression of prejudice, even if it triggers some of your own prejudice, just say "no!" It's wrong to speak so. It is wrong to act on those emotions. We have to know right from wrong.

Commentary on 11/20/2018

Print Headline: Learning by example

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