Tyler: Early Life Influence on Moral Decision Making

NYU’s Professor Tom Tyler and Lindsay Rankin suggest that physical discipline toward a child leads to violent behavior, but in fact the link is more correlational than causal.

DisciplinePhysical discipline is linked directly to aggression and violence toward others in both childhood and adolescence. … Physical punishment of children is therefore not effective in leading to long-term compliance with rules and laws, and it is not effective in producing the type of social values that we argue lead to self-regulation.  Instead, physical discipline leads to just the opposite: aggressive and violent behavior. (Tyler, 28)

Perhaps the children who are physically punished at home are already more likely to engage in aggressive and violent behavior for other reasons, such as their community’s culture or lack of accessibility of positive opportunities. Moreover, in some families, forceful physical and verbal communication are not intended as hurtful but simply the modus operandi for giving instructions. Lisa Delpit’s 1988 article “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children” contrasts different types of communication between white and black families:

By contrast, a Black mother, in whose house I was recently a guest, said to her eight-year-old son, “Boy, get your rusty behind in that bathtub.” Now I happen to know that this woman loves her son as much as any mother, but she would never have posed the directive to her son to take a bath in the form of a question. Were she to ask, “Would you like to take your bath now?” she would not have been issuing a directive but offering a true alternative. Consequently, as Heath suggests, upon entering school the child from such a family may not understand the indirect statement of the teacher as a direct command.

Child ReadingIdentifying the most effective language for law enforcement and residents to communicate is crucial. Tyler presses the need to “build the values that encourage rule-following in the first place. A value-based approach to ensuring individuals comply with the law should therefore include a focus on childhood socialization, specifically the development of the values of legitimacy and moral values in children” (Tyler, 28).

He does not, however, give specific suggestions for how to develop these values in the first place, and it is certainly an important topic in multiple disciplines. Developmental psychologists and educators have recently focused on the development of executive functions in children. In their 2007 Science article “Preschool program improves cognitive control,” Adele Diamond, PhD, and colleagues define the 3 components of executive functions as

  1. “inhibitory control (resisting habits, temptations, or distractions),
  2. working memory (mentally holding and using information), and
  3. cognitive flexibility (adjusting to change).”

Among these, the inhibitory control system seems to relate the most to development of behavior and morals consistent with the legal system. Children demonstrate inhibitory control and self-regulation by, for example, remaining silent when others are talking or staying focused despite a chaotic environment. The legal system and education system encourage many of the same values and reward many of the same behaviors and therefore could perhaps benefit from more collaboration.

For more on inhibitory self control, see the marshmallow study video referenced in Blog Log #4.


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