Raising Kind Kids:
Q&A with Author Melinda Wenner Moyer
By Kim Hickok
Probably all parents can agree that they want their kids to grow up to be good, kind people. In her book, “How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes: Science-based strategies for better parenting – from tots to teens,” (Headline Home, 2021) award-winning science journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer shares the most relevant scientific research on how to raise kids who are kind. Recently, we spoke with Moyer to learn more about her book and what she learned while writing it.
Here’s what she had to say.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Your background is in science journalism, so how did you get started writing about parenting?
When I became a parent I had so many questions about everything, and I would get so many different answers. I found that really frustrating and dissatisfying.
So, I wondered, could science answer some of these parenting questions for me? I found there was actually a lot of research in child development, so I started writing a science-based parenting column. It felt really satisfying to recognize that science could help answer a lot of these seemingly difficult questions that people have conflicting answers for.
What inspired you to write this book?
About three and a half years ago, I started getting increasingly frustrated by all the bad behavior I was seeing everywhere – people being intolerant and unkind. I thought about what my kids were learning from this and I realized that what was more important to me than anything else is that my kids grow up to be good human beings.
As I spoke with other parents I learned we were all having the same realization. We used to stress about getting into the right preschools and how to make sure our kids have a leg up in the world, but it shifted to “How do I just make sure I raise a good human being?” With that, came the recognition that if we collectively did this, then we would build a better future.
Digging into the science and writing the book just felt like the right thing to do, and something I was really passionate about.
How is your book different from other parenting books?
I think a lot of parenting advice is rooted in theory, or a particular expert’s ideas. There are not a lot of parenting books that are rooted in science and evidence, especially when it comes to building character and shaping values.
My perspective is very different from that of a psychologist, or a therapist or even a pediatrician, because I’ve looked at all the research and used my skills as a science journalist to really drill down into what the consensus says on a particular issue.
How did you come up with the (hilarious) title?
The title actually came to me first, before the larger concept of the book. One night I was out with my husband and said out of nowhere, “I should write a book called ‘How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes.’”
The publisher and I did have some concerns about the title, namely that it might be a bit off-putting to some. Also I was a bit worried about people misinterpreting it, because I meant it as “How to raise kids who won’t grow up to be assholes,” rather than “How to raise kids who never act like assholes,” because that probably won’t happen. I think that kids have to make social bloopers in order to learn from them and they have to cross boundaries in order to learn where they are. But at the same time, the title was catchy and memorable and made it clear that the book was a mixture of service and humor. So in the end, even though we knew it was a bit risky, we decided to keep it.
How did you decide what topics to cover?
I thought about what makes someone an asshole, and what are the characteristics that are the opposite of that, traits like selflessness, generosity, compassion, and empathy. And then I thought about what the modern asshole looks like. A lot of assholes are racist and they’re sexist, so I wanted to address that, too.
You cover many sensitive subjects, including gender, race, and even pornography. What did you find was the trickiest topic to write about?
The racism chapter. I’m a white woman, so it didn’t feel right to give advice to parents of color or parents of children of color on how to have conversations about race with their kids. At the beginning of that chapter I make it clear that I am a white woman and I do not have the lived experiences of people of color. As a result, I’m only speaking to white parents in that chapter, because I think the research is pretty clear on the fact that white parents have the most to learn when it comes to talking to kids about race.
What was the most surprising thing/research you came across?
Most surprising was some of the research on bullying. I think there are a lot of misconceptions that I and other parents had about how kids engage in bullying, mainly this idea that kids always engage or they never engage. But it turns out there’s really a spectrum of behavior.
Also surprising was that some kids who engage in bullying really don’t understand the impact of their behavior on others. As parents, we should be having conversations with our kids about how their choices could have impacts that they don’t predict.
There will always be things parents can work on, but do you think there is anything this generation of parents is getting right?
I think this generation of parents leans into conversations with our kids about difficult topics more readily than parents of past generations. There’s not a lot of research on this, but I think we’re doing a good job there.
Also, it seems that parenting styles have shifted away from authoritarian parenting – the harsher, stricter parenting – and more toward authoritative parenting, which we know from research is associated with the best outcomes. This is the so-called middle-ground parenting, where there are limits and boundaries, but not quite as much harsh punishment.
What’s the best parenting advice you’ve ever received?
Making “mistakes” as a parent is ok, and can actually be very constructive for kids. When we handle something in a way we don’t think is maybe the best way, and we recognize that later, we can take responsibility for it in front of our kids and apologize, and that is modeling the kind of behavior we want to see.
Also, child psychologists and other experts struggle just as much as the rest of us with knowing how to handle certain situations, and I found that really reassuring. There is no such thing as a perfect parent.