Let's say little Aaron has been punished for a moral infraction -- stealing a pencil from classmate Jimmy -- just before a test. The punishment was subtractive in nature -- Aaron would have no dessert that night. But Aaron was not just punished and left alone.
He was also given a magic follow-up sentence, one that makes any form of punishment more effective, long-lasting, and internalized.
Explanations given to Aaron ranged from "How could Jimmy possibly complete his test without his pencil?" to "Our family doesn't steal."
Here's what happens to Aaron's behavior when explanations are supplied consistently over the years:
When Aaron thinks about committing that same forbidden act in the future, he will remember the punishment. He becomes more physiologically aroused, generating uncomfortable feelings.
Aaron will make an internal attribution for this uneasiness. Examples might include: "I'd feel awful if Jimmy failed his test," "I wouldn't like it if he did that to me," "I am better than that," and so on. Your child's internal attribution originates from whatever rationale you supplied during the correction.
Now, knowing why he is uneasy -- and wanting to avoid the feeling -- Aaron is free to generalize the lesson to other situations. "I probably shouldn't steal erasers from Jimmy, either." "Maybe I shouldn't steal things, period."
Cue the applause of a million juvenile correction and law-enforcement professionals. Inductive parenting provides a fully adaptable, internalizable moral sensibility -- congruent with inborn instincts. (Aaron also was instructed to write a note of apology, which he did the next day.)
Kids who are punished without explanation do not go through these steps. Parke found that such children only externalize their perceptions, saying, "I will get spanked if I do this again." They were constantly on the lookout for an authority figure; it was the presence of an external credible threat that guided their behavior, not a reasoned response to an internal moral compass. Children who can't get to step two can't get to step three, and they are one step closer to Daniel, the boy who stabbed a classmate in the cheek with a pencil.
The bottom line: Parents who provide clear, consistent boundaries whose reasons for existence are always explained generally produce moral kids.
Note that I said "generally." Inductive discipline, powerful as it is, is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. The temperament of the child turns out to be a major factor. For toddlers possessed of a fearless and impulsive outlook on life, inductive discipline can be too weak. Kids with a more fearful temperament may react catastrophically to the sharp correctives their fearless siblings shrug off. They need to be handled much more gently.
All kids need rules, but every brain is wired differently, so you need to know your kid's emotional landscapes inside and out -- and adapt your discipline strategies accordingly.
John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and author of the New York Times bestseller "Brain Rules." His latest book is "Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five." He is an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He is also the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.