The Thinking 

The Anomaly of Well-Behaved Children

September 6, 2012


IN A previous entry, many readers who have more than two or three children wrote of the rude comments people make about their large families. Ironically, some mentioned that they are also the recipients of compliments for their children’s good behavior in public. A reader describes his experiences in this regard below.

Terry Morris writes:

Some of your commenters have noted that, in addition to receiving sniping and insulting comments from people, they also receive praises for their childrens’ behavior in public. This is something we’ve experienced many, many times too.

However, I’ve personally always looked upon this as a bane on our society as a whole. I’m not insulted by the frequent “I just wanted to tell you that your kids are the most well-behaved kids I’ve ever seen,” of course, but what does it say about the culture that (1) my children are the most well-behaved children anyone who notices their behavior has ever seen, and (2) that such people feel it necessary to convey this to us?

We, or more precisely my wife, once had a woman approach her in a local restaurant to say exactly that. She further explained that she was a retired public school teacher, and was curious about where they attend school. When my wife replied that they are homeschooled, the woman’s demeanour changed dramatically, and instantly. Instantly noticing her disappointment at learning this information, I blurted out “…which is the main reason they’re so well behaved.” She returned a sarcastic smile, mumbled something unintelligible, and turned and walked out of the restaurant, her husband in toe, and me saying, “Pardon. I didn’t catch what you said.”

My wife is almost always the recipient of these praises, and almost always by other women. Although there is the occasional exception when I’m alone with the children in public. One woman stopped me in Walmart one day saying, in part, “I’ve never quite seen anything like it; they’re so well behaved, and yet they seem so … happy.” She said she’d noticed us and had followed us around in the store for several minutes observing prior to approaching me. I’ll admit that while somewhat strange, that was a pleasurable experience for me, and I held my chin up a bit higher that day.

But again, what do such encounters say about the larger culture?

As a side note, I was recounting some of these instances to someone once, and had mentioned that in many of them people are curious about “where I learned these parenting skills.” At the time my pat answer was some form of “I had a good upbringing,” which is true, but not completely accurate. My interlocutor said that he had once heard someone answer a similar question with a simple “from the King James version.” Which I adopted almost immediately thereafter. :-)

—– Comments —–

Tom B. writes:

Regarding Terry’s account of his kids, my wife and I have had similar experiences. Last week, at the optometrist, she had to leave the nine-year-old alone with her younger twin brothers in the waiting room, while she attended to their brother. Upon returning, a gentleman in his 70s informed her that “those are the best behaved kids I’ve seen in two generations.” (We also homeschool.) I think vertical socialization is the key – their days are spent with adults, not their peers, and their behavior adjusts accordingly. That this is unusual is a sad commentary on the dystopia we find ourselves in.

Laura writes:

Yes, “vertical socialization is the key.”

James P. writes:

Terry Morris notes that his wife is “almost always the recipient” of praise for the good behavior of his children. This is especially ironic given that there are many, many studies that demonstrate the positive effect of fathers on the behavior of children, and that the behavior of children (especially boys) raised by single mothers is comparatively very poor. Thus, the strangers should be praising him, not his wife. If the strangers address his wife, he should speak up and say, “I insist they behave properly.”

I would also note that previous generations of children did not spend most of their day with adults, but with other children, and yet their behavior remained good (or at least, better than today). I suspect this was partly because other adults felt an obligation to correct the behavior of any child, even one they did not know, and woe betide the child whose parents received a report of their misbehavior from other adults. These days, if you correct a strange child, the child will ignore you, and it is not impossible that the child’s parents will shout abuse at you or physically attack you.

 Laura writes:

I assumed that Mr. Morris’s wife was more often the recipient of praise simply because she was more often out with their children.

I agree with James P. that adults were more likely to correct other people’s children in the past. Teachers also had more authority. However, children also spent more time in the company of their parents.

Mr. Morris writes:

Actually James P. read me right. It is a rare occasion that my wife and the children are out in public without me. But I think that in many, if not most, cases these women approach my wife because she’s the more approachable one between the two of us, not necessarily because they’re denying my role as the primary disciplinarian in our home. Speaking of which, my wife is a very good woman, a great wife and a wonderful mother. But she’s simply not an effective disciplinarian outside my influence and backing.

Jesse Powell writes:

It is an interesting question, whether the father should receive more praise for his children being well behaved or if such compliments are better directed at the mother. I think in general a stranger will be more comfortable approaching the mother on a matter related to a couple’s children. I also think that children are considered more the woman’s “territory” than the man’s. However, on the specific issue of the children’s disciplined behavior I am inclined to think that that is more a credit to the father than the mother. The children being contented and friendly and happy may be more a credit to the mother. [Laura writes: It seems both mother and father are influential in these areas, though in different ways. A mother, though she may be less of a disciplinarian, is important in affirming the authority of a father. And, a father’s affection is paramount.]

Interestingly fathers are much more important in passing on religious faith to children than mothers are, which is possibly related to their role as family authority figures. A study based on Switzerland in 1994 found that fathers who attended church regularly while the mother did not attend church at all led to 44 percent of children attending church regularly after they grew up. In the reverse situation where the mother attended church regularly but the father did not attend church at all only two percent of the children ended up attending church regularly as adults. The mother attending church regularly with the father not attending did lead to more of the children attending church irregularly as opposed to not at all but it didn’t lead to more children attending church regularly as adults. Only the father’s church attendance lead to children attending church regularly after becoming adults. Indeed, an ironic result was found in families where the father attended church regularly the children were more likely to attend church regularly as adults the less their mother attended church herself.

My interpretation of this finding is that when the mother showed rebelliousness against authority by refusing to go to church the children clung to their father’s religiosity and source of authority and guidance even more strongly. When the situation was reversed and it was the father rebelling against authority by not going to church and it was the mother who attended church regularly the mother’s attendance was able to encourage irregular church attendance in the children as adults but it was not able to encourage regular church attendance for the children after they became adults at all.

This shows fathers have a clear advantage in their ability to communicate moral principles and religious faith to their children. This finding seems to point directly to the importance of having men as leaders in the church. If a child will follow the religious pattern modeled by his father much more than his mother it makes sense that a child and adults as well will take religious instruction coming from a man much more seriously than religious instruction coming from a woman. Furthermore a church mostly attracting women parishioners is in trouble as the church will not be able to communicate its moral message or its moral purpose without men in attendance.

For more background information on the importance of fathers in the spiritual upbringing and guidance of their children go to “The Truth About Men & Church” at Touchstone Magazine and “How the presence and quality of fathers affects belief in God” at Wintery Knight.

Laura writes:

Absolutely true.

Clark Coleman writes:

While the Switzerland study is very interesting, I have seen a similar study (of male children, If I recall correctly) discussed a few years ago at Christianity Today that shows some differences in the data from America. First, all of the numbers for churchgoing adults in Switzerland are very low. No matter what the parental pattern, regular churchgoing among the children never exceeds 44 percent when they reach adulthood. That is quite a generational decline, but not surprising in Europe. The numbers for these categories were much higher in the American study, reaching peaks that were about 74 percent or more, not 44 percent. Second, the data (from memory) were more like this: Father and mother both regular churchgoers, male child also is regular churchgoer at highest rate; Father yes, mother no, male child is still highly likely, but a little less than the first case (in other words, even there is a positive correlation between mother attendance and son attendance, not a negative correlation, which is a big difference from the Switzerland study); Father no, mother yes, big drop-off in male child attendance as an adult (less than 50 percent likely, although this would be one of the better numbers in Switzerland!); Father no, mother no, very small likelihood of son attending regularly as an adult.

The American data confirm the male role modeling for male children that we would expect, show much less generational decline, and show that both parents attending is slightly better than only the father attending.

I would also like to point out the negative end of the data from the Swiss study: Father yes, mother yes, 25 percent of the children end up not attending at all; Father yes, mother no, 34 percent of the children end up not attending at all. Even in the Swiss data, this is a positive effect from the mother, not a negative correlation.

I will continue to search for the American data, but the search engines are swamped by 8,000,000 sites linking to the Swiss story.

Mr. Coleman writes:

I doubt I can get closer than this to the source of that study.

Laura writes:

Thank you. Those are important qualifications to Jesse’s comments.

Bruce B. writes:

My wife and I have six children and we homeschool. I’m not surprised by Terry Morris’ story. Public school teachers hate homeschooling. It encroaches on their territory.


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