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In the 1950s, when I was 12 and my brother was 7, my parents took us to the Colorado State Penitentiary in Pueblo for a tour. They did this so my brother and I would know exactly what would happen to us if we did anything wrong.

At least 30 “tourists” walked through work areas, exercise yards, classrooms, and cell blocks. We saw men making the state’s license plates, doing laundry for the facility, having lunch in the mess hall, and lounging in their cells. It felt a lot like going to the zoo.

The most shocking part of the tour was our stroll through the cell blocks. The men’s names were attached to the bars of each cell. Those names were reminders of grizzly crimes that the adults in our group chattered about as we passed by.

My 12-year-old sensibilities were appalled. I huddled amid the tourists, keeping my face forward. I was sure if I made eye contact, the prisoner would recognize me and kill me when he got out.

On the drive back to Denver that afternoon, we began an argument that essentially went on til my parents died. The question: Why do we behave?

As I have gotten older, I do realize that a perfect answer to that question is not possible. The variables are as many as we as a species. But, in that car, black was black and white was white. My parents were adamant that people will only be good if they are afraid of the consequences. Hence, my brother and I would never rob a bank because we were afraid now of being put into prison.

I was offended. The darkness of my heart was assumed. Without fear of ... whatever... I would turn to evil. It had never occurred to me to rob a bank. I didn’t want anyone stealing my money; why would I steal someone else’s?

I know I was naive. And, I also know parents and criminal justice systems around the world still struggle to answer that question.

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I did an online search, “Are children naturally altruistic?”

There were over 5 million results. The first was a short PBS movie showing very small children being spontaneously helpful. Many equated human evolutionary survival to empathy and altruism.

If empathy and altruism is our nature, it seems a small job to raise people who behave themselves. Could it be that the fear, judgment, and recrimination we live with and pass along to our children actually is backfiring?

What would be the outcome if we learned how to nurture the natural drive of our children (and our own) to be helpful, kind, generous, and compassionate instead of applying punishment for every infraction?

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Dianne Roth is a mother, grandmother, teacher, and freelance writer. She can be reached at: