Monday, December 14, 2009

Smells Like Good Parenting

A study about how clean smells promote moral behavior has been making the news lately. The study showed that in the presence of clean scents (like Citrus Windex), people are more likely to be fair and kind. This piece of research, along with much other situationist social psychology, raises interesting questions about freedom, our understanding of ourselves, and ethics. But to my (limited) knowledge situationist findings have not been fully exploited in the child-rearing realm.

One of our jobs as parents is to do what we can to help our children be good. A lot of parents worry about being too lax or too strict when it comes to their kids' bad behavior. We ask ourselves: Should I spank? Should I give the kids a time-out? Should I just ignore the bad behavior? Should I let them out of the dungeon? And so on. It really can be a puzzle as to what the best strategy is (check out this helpful menu of options).

But wouldn't it be great if we could stop bad behavior before it starts? Does situationism hold out that promise? If we make the air smell clean, paint the walls blue, hide dimes in strategic locations around the house, flash subliminal messages of kindness various times throughout the day, etc., and all of this has salutory effects, have we thereby improved our parenting?

One objection is that it is manipulative, but I just don't know how strong an objection that is here. Not all manipulation is objectionable. The host of a party will do a lot to encourage festivity at the party, such as decorating, adjusting the lights, putting on music, etc. That seems alright. Furthermore, it seems like parenting by necessity involves a lot of manipulation, at least in the technical sense, insofar as parents try to get arational beings to "choose" in the way parents want them to (e.g., you rub your tummy and say "ooooh, this mashed squash tastes so yummy yummy don't you want some? Here comes the airplane, open the hangar door!").

Another objection is that the effects won't last. You'll get good behavior when the situationist stimuli is fresh, but in the long run we won't have made our kids good. Again, I don't know about this. Isn't there something to be said about the old Arisotelian idea of becoming good by doing good? I suppose that in the end that is an empirical question. On a related note, I'd add that there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with getting kids to do good things for not-so-right reasons (such as bribing them to come to the ballet with a promise of ice cream afterwards), with the aim of them eventually doing these things for the right reasons (coming to the ballet because they have learned that it is beautiful).

Perhaps I am giving away my million dollar idea, but with a bit more research and some marketing, perhaps one day we will be purchasing "Good Behavior in a Box TM" (dimes not included). Is that something we should be looking forward to? Of course, how you answer that question may depend on whether your kids are behaving today, along with other aspects of your situation.

For more on situationism, see The Situationist blog. If you need to relax, just stare at this.


Anonymous said...

No pains, no gains...................................................

棗子 said...