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(Wesley Tingey, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Beatrice Di Caro, Digital Media Specialist, World Economic Forum & Ceri Parker, Commissioning Editor, Agenda, World Economic Forum


  • It’s time to put punishment on the naughty step, advises psychologist Adam Grant.
  • Explaining the principle behind a rule is crucial.
  • Giving children a sense that others rely on them will boost their confidence.

How do you raise a child to be mentally strong, purposeful and resilient in the choppy waters of the twenty first century?

Adam Grant, a psychologist, author and professor at Wharton, is at Davos taking part in a session on fighting online misinformation. He took time on the sidelines of the meeting to talk to the Forum’s digital team about his insights on parenting, having sparked global debate with columns on raising a moral child and changing the way we talk to kids about work.

Asking children what they want to be when they grow up, he wrote, “forces kids to define themselves in terms of work” – problematic when, as Forum research highlights, careers today consist of constant upskilling rather than set identities.

Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation:

What’s the worst parenting advice you’ve heard?

The worst parenting advice that I’ve ever heard is that when kids do something wrong, they need to be punished.

There’s a classic study of rescuers during the Holocaust who put their own lives on the line in order to save, in some cases, complete strangers.

The question was: what made them different from their peers, living in the same towns, who never stepped up and became heroes? And the answer was that in part, their parents responded very differently when they misbehaved.

So the ordinary citizens were constantly punished when they did something wrong and they learned to try to avoid negative consequences. Whereas the Holocaust rescuers, instead of being punished, were actually given explanations. So when they broke a rule, they were told, look, you know what? This is a rule that might seem silly. But here’s the value or principle behind it, or here’s how your behavior hurt other people. And then they were much more likely to reflect on the ultimate impact of their behavior on others, which meant that when they found themselves in a situation where they could potentially save lives, they were much more likely to step up.

Now, of course, we don’t know whether this parenting strategy ultimately caused them to engage in these extraordinary acts of heroism and sacrifice and courage. What we do know, though, is that they learn to engage in a different kind of moral reasoning and that instead of being just told that your behavior is wrong, or being penalized, if you actually understand why it has negative impacts, what it does to harm other people, you’re much more likely to form your own moral principles around trying to do right by others. And that ultimately, I think, is something that more parents can encourage their kids to do.

On the flip side, can you share the best advice?

I think the best parenting advice I’ve ever received is to show kids that they matter, and that other people rely on them.

If we’re not distracted by our devices, we do a pretty good job paying attention to our kids. And of course, we know that it’s important to give them unconditional love.

But there’s a third piece, which is to say, actually you need to feel that other people rely on you. I think parents often miss that with children. We feel that it’s our job to teach them, to protect them, to care for them. And we don’t ever give them the chance then to build their own resilience by helping us solve problems.

And so I think that one of the ways we can we can put this advice into action is to ask our kids for guidance every once in a while.

I know when I’m nervous about a big speech, for example, I’ve actually gone to our kids and asked them how I should manage that anxiety. And that shows I have a lot of confidence in them. It also gives them a chance when they find themselves in a similar situation to think back on their guidance. And that makes them feel like they’re active, that they have something to contribute and offer as opposed to just being dependent on other people.

I think that every child needs to feel that they matter. There’s no question about that. But the idea is that even as young as six, seven, eight years old, they need to feel that other people are counting on them, that they can make a difference in the lives of others. It’s an important way to make them feel that they matter and to build their strength.