Melinda Wenner Moyer is the author of How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes. We caught up with her recently to ask some questions—about her book and her writing process—and here’s what she had to say:
1. How did you come up with the idea for your book?
For years, as Slate’s parenting columnist, friends would say, “Why don’t you write a parenting book?” But I always scoffed. I thought, who am I to tell other parents what to do? I’m certainly not a perfect parent, and I definitely don’t have perfect kids! But then, after Trump was elected, I grew increasingly frustrated by the bad behavior I was seeing all around me, and I worried about the messages this bad behavior was sending to my kids. I realized that what I wanted more than anything else was to ensure that my kids grew up to be compassionate, kind-hearted people. And when I talked to other parents, I discovered that many felt the same way. I also discovered that there was compelling research on how to shape kids’ values and character, that much of it was surprising and counterintuitive, and that very little of it had been translated into simple and actionable advice for parents.
With my background in science journalism — my job is to translate complicated research into insight people can understand and use — I began to feel it was my duty to write a book for parents on what we can all collectively do to not raise assholes. I also felt it could do a lot of good, since we as parents are raising the next generation of adults. We can literally change the world based on how we raise our children.
2. Why do we need this book now? Are our kids really more asshole-y than previous generations?
There is some evidence of this, yes. When the Human Rights Campaign surveyed more than 50,000 American teens in 2016 and 2017, 79 percent said they thought school bullying incidents had recently gotten worse. Researchers at UCLA also surveyed public school teachers in 2017, and nearly 30 percent said that their students were making more derogatory remarks about their peers than in years past. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented some pretty heinous hate crimes in U.S. schools as of late, too, including a white student putting a noose around a Black student’s neck, kids loudly threatening to grab a 16-year-old “by the pussy,” and students shouting “Build a Wall” in their school cafeteria.
There is also evidence suggesting that adults have become more asshole-ish, including (if not especially) adults in positions of power — and that’s important. According to a well-known theory in psychology called social learning theory, kids learn how to act based in part on watching what adults do, and the people they most like to emulate are adults in positions of power. So when, for instance, Trump made racist and misogynistic comments throughout his presidency, you can bet that children (and adults) were learning from him that this kind of behavior was not only OK, but what powerful people do. Perhaps unsurprisingly, hate crime numbers peaked to their highest point ever in the U.S. in 2019.
3. How long did it take you to write the book? What was the hardest part/most challenging part of the writing process?
I spent a year researching and writing the book, from March 2019 to March 2020. I literally turned in my draft on March 1, right before the pandemic hit, and I’m so grateful for that, because I never would have finished it otherwise! I’d say the hardest part was transitioning from the reporting to the writing — figuring out where to start and what my tone and voice should be. But once I got the first few pages down, I got into a rhythm and a zone. Another hard part for me was the editing process — or lack thereof. Book edits are extremely minimal compared to the magazine and newspaper edits I’m used to as a journalist, and that made me so nervous! I worried that mistakes or omissions might get overlooked.
4. Was there anything you ended up including in your book that surprised you/you didn’t expect?
A lot of the research I uncovered in my reporting was surprising to me. Once you look at the data, you realize that some of our cultural norms surrounding parenting are counterproductive — some seemingly innocuous traditions and approaches can actually have unexpected and somewhat insidious effects. Like dressing boys in blue and girls in pink — that seems perfectly harmless, right? But when you look at the research on how children are affected by adults’ highlighting of gender differences and gender stereotypes, you see that over time, this fuels the development of sexist ideas. There’s also the age-old practice of letting siblings work out conflicts by themselves — psychologists used to recommend this approach, but recent research suggests that this actually encourages kids to resort to coercion and bullying to resolve conflicts. I kept uncovering all sorts of counterintuitive tidbits — I think there’s something that surprised me in every chapter.
5. You touch on a lot of topics in the book: selfishness, screen time, bullying, racism, among others. Does each arena need to be treated separately or are there strategies a parent can employ across the board?
There are certainly themes that came up again and again in the research (and therefore in the book) — like that when we teach our kids to consider other people’s perspectives (fostering a skill known as “theory of mind”), we reduce the chances of all sorts of bad outcomes (bullying, sibling conflict) and increase the chances of all sorts of good outcomes and traits (generosity and helpfulness).
At the same time, there were some fascinating nuances I uncovered that suggest that our approaches do sometimes need to be tailored to the topic. For instance, research suggests that adults should ideally not highlight gender as much as we typically do in conversation with kids, because doing so fuels sexism. On the other hand, we should be talking a lot more with our kids about race than we typically do, because not talking about race fuels racism. It’s confusing, I know — I explain the rationale in the book.
6. What did you learn about yourself when writing the book?
One thing I learned is that I love writing books! Once I got over my initial fears, I truly enjoyed this whole process, and I hope I get the chance to write another book one day. I also learned that even after learning about the most constructive ways to handle situations as a parent, I didn’t magically turn into a supermom. I kept handling things “the old way.” I think that’s because so much of parenting is reactive and emotional — our responses to our kids are often driven by the parts of the brain that deal with feelings. When we learn new parenting strategies, on the other hand, we’re engaging the part of the brain that deals with rational thinking. Sometimes (often?) those parts of the brain are at odds with each other, and it takes time and practice to sync them up. Slowly, though, I’ve been seeing positive changes in myself and my parenting, and my kids have been changing too. But it’s been a process!
7. Are you working on anything else?
I’m mostly working on the book launch, although I just found out that a feature I’ve been working on for more than two years is finally going to run next month in one of my dream publications, so I’m also really excited about that!
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a contributing editor at Scientific American magazine and a regular contributor to The New York Times, Washington Post, and other national magazines and newspapers. She is a faculty member in the Science, Health & Environmental Reporting program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She also writes a parenting newsletter, Is My Kid the Asshole?, which explains and addresses challenging kid behavior. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, two kids, and their dog. Buy the book here!
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