"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bad Behavior

David Brooks writes in the New York Times (11.27.12, How People Change) about bad behavior in children, and something called ‘The Crews Missile’, a letter one disappointed and disgruntled father sent to all his wayward children (published by one of Crew’s daughters):

Dear All Three,” he wrote. “With last evening’s crop of whinges and tidings of more rotten news for which you seem to treat your mother like a cess-pit, I feel it is time to come off my perch.

“It is obvious that none of you has the faintest notion of the bitter disappointment each of you has in your own way dished out to us. We are seeing the miserable death throes of the fourth of your collective marriages at the same time we see the advent of a fifth.”

Then he turned to his grandchildren. “So we witness the introduction to this life of six beautiful children — soon to be seven — none of whose parents have had the maturity and sound judgment to make a reasonable fist at making essential threshold decisions. ... “

Crews has become famous in Britain for saying what was on most people’s minds – it is time to stop making excuses for the whining little ankle-biters who have become progressively bratty, self-absorbed, and incompetent adults; to stop accepting any of the blame, and put it squarely where it belongs – on the little buggers themselves.

While most of us have, at one time or another, wanted to ship our children to some Bornean penal colony, we have also realized that we share a lot in the way they turn out.  First, there is that niggling little matter of genetics.  Although it is true that little William could have inherited particularly nasty bits of DNA from his ne’er-do-well, layabout great-uncle Fosdick, most of his genetic rigging comes from the parents.  Second, children do spend a lot of time in the home with their mother and father, and this environment, for better or worse, cannot be ignored.  Thirdly, their social environment outside the home – schools, sports groups, ballet classes - is largely determined by parents. 

There are those child psychologists who are convinced that parents’ influence is not what it is cracked up to be, and that once children get out into the competitive, demanding world of the schoolyard, they are on their own; but this is debatable. Parents will always have a tremendous influence over their children for what they – the parents – do or don’t do.

So it is Crews who is doing the whingeing and whining, not his children.  When most reasonable people read his account of children gone bad, they look first at him.  After all, there wasn’t just one bad apple in the lot – the one with Great-Uncle Fosdick’s deformed DNA – but all his kids turned out wrong. What does that tell you?

Bringing up children, especially in the teenage years when they are most likely to fall of the rails, is a bit like being a field marshal in a major war.  You need to build an alliance of other parents, teachers, neighbors, and in-laws; choose your battles even if you lose skirmishes to win the war; balance force with diplomacy and negotiation; use intimidation and threat but balanced with reward and satisfaction. 

Of course all this can go wrong and the Law of Unintended Consequences always seems to be in force.  A daughter growing up in a good home with parents in a good marriage might so desperately want what her parents had, that at age 37 she plunges into wedlock with another Great-Uncle Fosdick.

Then, of course, there is accident.  Desdemona might still be alive and Othello Duke of Venice if she hadn’t dropped that damned handkerchief!  An only slightly wobbly son might get sent to jail simply by being with a bad seed during a crime; and those prison years might turn him in all kinds of twisted directions.

Brooks turns to prevention – how to assure that children don’t turn out badly.  However, he offers platitudes and the very obvious:

Human behavior flows from hidden springs and calls for constant and crafty prodding more than blunt hectoring. The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not with a ferocious e-mail trying to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones.

It is pretty darn hard to address negative behaviors ‘obliquely’ when your son has trashed the basement with his doper friends while you were gone; and ‘redirecting attention towards different, positive ones’ almost impossible even when your fury has died down.  The only way to be a good parent in troubled times is to read Thucydides and his histories of the Spartan Wars.  Have your battle plan ready, but be agile enough to change directions as the enemy adjusts his.  Assemble your field commanders and diplomats, martial all your resources and reserves, and have at it.

I know that Brooks means to be more general and to offer advice about dealing with any obstinate, dangerous, or difficult behavior; and while the literature (and my 40 years in the field of Behavior Change) confirms his contention that the positive usually trumps the negative, child behavior begins in the distant past (Great Uncle Fosdick), is subjected to the final recombinant twists of parental genes, is conditioned by everything in the home and outside it, and can be affected by ‘outrageous fortune’ at every turn.  Being positive just doesn’t cut it.

Brooks ends his article with this:

It’s foolhardy to try to persuade people to see the profound errors of their ways in the hope that mental change will lead to behavioral change. Instead, try to change superficial behavior first and hope that, if they act differently, they’ll eventually think differently. Lure people toward success with the promise of admiration instead of trying to punish failure with criticism. Positive rewards are more powerful.

Mr. Brooks, I read and enjoy most of your articles, but puleeeeze…..

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