Set Your Children’s “Defaults” Early

July 13th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

"Your Children Are Listening" by Dr. Jim TaylorFor you to send the healthiest possible messages to your children requires that you fully buy into my notion that children become the messages they get the most. Though it seems to be a pretty intuitive and reasonable concept, I feel the need to thoroughly convince you of the profound value of messages to your children’s development.

Why Messages?

I’ve always been a bit of a tech geek and first adopter and, for some time, I’ve been blogging on the Psychology of Technology for a variety of web sites. One concept that I come across frequently in the technology world is “default.” For those of you not familiar with what a default is in tech-speak, it’s defined as a “preset option: an option that will automatically be selected by a computer if the user does not choose another alternative.” Though I didn’t understand why for some time, the idea of defaults has always resonated with me and struck me as meaningful at a psychological level.

Now you may be wondering what a computer default has to do with raising children. Well, in raising your children, whether you realize it or not, you’re creating a set of default options in just about every aspect of their lives. To paraphrase the computer definition above, these child defaults are “automatically selected by children if they do not deliberately choose another option.” In other words, your children’s defaults are reflexive responses to their life experiences, including their first thoughts, emotions, decisions, and actions to any given situation. Defaults, whether healthy or unhealthy, are so important for children because they are the first option that will arrive in their “outbox” when faced with a choice. If you can “install” healthy defaults in your children, you are increasing the chances that they will choose that healthy option over other alternatives that might be more attractive to them, but also potentially harmful.

Importance of Defaults

There are several reasons why defaults are so important for children. The cognitive sciences have demonstrated that people in general attempt to be as efficient as possible in choosing and taking courses of action. This means that whatever mechanism will enable children to come to a decision most quickly will likely determine the course they choose. Defaults provide that efficient mechanism.

Also, recent neuropsychological research has shown that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with so-called executive functioning, such as impulse control, risk/reward comparisons, future planning, and decision making, is still developing well into children’s teenage years. This means that, without proper defaults, children are more likely to not only act without thinking, but also be more readily swayed by external forces, such as peer pressure and popular culture. In other words, children will usually have knee-jerk reactions to rather than make deliberate decisions about the situations they face. Whether they have healthy defaults, unhealthy defaults, or no defaults at all will, to a large extent, dictate what their reactions will be.

How Defaults Develop

Defaults develop early in your children’s lives from several sources. Role modeling from you, peers, and other visible people in their lives provides young children with their earliest exposure to defaults. When your children see influential people in their lives – and you are, by far, the most important people in their lives – act a certain way in various situations, they come to internalize those reactions as their own defaults. You can see the power of this role-modeling effect in simple ways, such as the body language and vocabulary your children pick up from you. Once your children develop language skills, you can impact their defaults through discussions of appropriate behavior in situations and in conversations following teachable moments. Ultimately, defaults are instilled through sheer repetition; the more your children see and hear the same messages, and act and react in the same way, the more deeply ingrained those defaults become and the more likely those defaults will dictate behavior in the future.

Types of Defaults

The values that your children internalize can act as defaults because values will be the first “gatekeeper” in choosing a particular course of action. If your children’s default values include honesty, responsibility, and generosity, when faced with situations that trigger these value defaults, they will be more likely to, for example, tell the truth, accept blame, and help others, respectively. And, given all of the bad value messages that children are getting from popular culture these days, it is an immense challenge to instill healthy values into your children. Unfortunately, once your children leave the nest of home, most of the values to which they are exposed, for instance, those conveyed by popular culture, will not be healthy ones. If you can inculcate positive values through good messages early in your children’s lives, you’ll be setting value defaults that will be more impervious to the unhealthy values with which they will be confronted once they enter the larger social (and digital) world.

The attitudes that your children develop about themselves, for example, self-esteem, self-respect, confidence, willingness to take risks, patience, and hard work, will become defaults when faced with challenges in different aspects of their lives such as in school and relationships. These attitudes are initially created through the quality of your relationship with your children and the messages you send them about your attitude toward them.

Defaults related to children’s physical health become habits that guide their physical life. Eating, exercise, and sleep defaults can set the stage for their long-term physical health (or ill health). When you look at the unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity among so many children these days, and the unhealthy defaults that get established at such a young age, you can understand why obesity among children has reached epidemic proportions.

How children occupy their free time, for example, do they read or watch television, and how they play early in their lives, for instance, tag in the backyard or video games indoors, can set their default for how they spend their play time and respond to boredom in their later childhood years. Early use (or overuse) of entertainment and social media, for example, television, computers, smartphones, and video games, that have become so prevalent in recent years, is creating an entirely new set of defaults that were simply unavailable in generations past.

Early social patterns also become defaults that will impact their relationships in later childhood and into adulthood. The messages young children get about how they interact with others determine whether their social defaults trigger, for example, kindness, compassion, respect, and cooperation or selfishness, antipathy, rudeness, and contention.

No Guarantees, But…

Even if your children develop healthy defaults, does this ensure that they won’t do anything stupid, mean, or unhealthy? Of course not. Just as computers have bugs, glitches, lock ups, and crashes no matter how well they are programmed and maintained, your children will need to be refreshed and updated periodically. But if your children are well programmed from the start, then you can be hopeful that those darling little “computers” will function productively and happily for many years to come.

Defaults for Parents Too

The notion of defaults doesn’t just apply to children. They can also play a big role in your parenting as your children get older. Think of it this way. In the early stages of your own parenting, you send a variety of messages to your children through many different conduits. The quality and quantity of messages you send and the specific conduits you send them through become internalized and, as a result, become your defaults for what messages you send and how you send them as your children develop.

Now let’s be realistic here. Sending positive messages is, in many ways, easier when your children are young because they remain inside the “family bubble” with few outside influences on either they or you. But once they enter the social and cultural world of school, the messages from the “real world” ratchet up a great deal for both of you. Your children are exposed to many messages from their peers and popular culture that aren’t healthy. That is obviously where the importance of early positive messaging from you comes in; those messages establish healthy defaults that will help your children resist the later noxious messages.

But you too are exposed to many messages from your peers and popular culture that are equally harmful. You will feel pressure from these messages to “keep up with the Joneses,” for example, to push your children to get better grades and win more in their sports participation, which may cause you to be vulnerable to sending them messages that you don’t really believe. Here is where the real benefits of early beneficial messaging and creating healthy defaults in you come in. When you create positive defaults in the messages you communicate to your children and the conduits through which you send them, you gird yourself against the toxic messages that you will surely receive as your children get older.

Note: This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You (The Experiment Publishing, 2012).

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see TV interviews and Prime topic discussions.)

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One Response to “Set Your Children’s “Defaults” Early”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Jim, I like the concept of “defaults” as applied to what children are learning as they grow up and become adults. You can see the defaults at work in children and adults all the time — for example, knowing ahead of time how members of your family, friends, co-workers, etc will respond under given circumstances. It’s also pretty obvious that none of us has much conscious control over how those defaults work.

    I’m not at all sure that most parents are capable of controlling the defaults they’re programming (horrible word) into their children. They’re too busy responding to life through their own defaults most of the time.

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