Friday, July 08, 2011

A Reaction To The Leash

We have two dogs, a standard poodle named Athena and a golden retriever named Waffle. When I make the mistake of pulling on their leashes, they pull in the opposite direction every time. Believe me, left to their own devices, they always want to go where ever I go. I know this because when there is no leash involved they follow right on my heels, hot breath on the backs of my legs, tripping me up when I turn around unexpectedly, but if they sense I'm compelling them, their instinctive response is to rebel.

I've found this to be true in humans as well. No one likes to be told what to do, even when we know it's for our own good, even when it's something we want to do. Imagine being commanded, "Eat your dessert!" I might still eat that dessert, but there will be a moment of reluctance, of rebellion, even if it's chocolate ice cream. And I know if I do, it's not going to taste as good after being bossed into it. And depending on who says it and how they say it, there's about an equal chance I won't eat that damn ice cream at all.

Rebellion is built into us, and ultimately it is an adaptive trait. We all pull back against the leash because we are designed to act according to the pull of our own instincts and the tug of our own knowledge. Of course, we've all found ourselves in circumstances when we've decided that we must squelch our rebellious urges, but we grow to despise those dictatorial bosses or teachers. If we do well it is "in spite" of them. And, of course, we wriggle out of those particular leashes as soon as we possibly can.

Parents know the truth about rebellion all too well. We set limits and rules and our children always test them. Even the most patient and progressive among us know from the inside the teeth grinding spiral of commands and refusals, until we finally resort to either physical force or the heavy hand of punishment. It leaves everyone feeling angry, resentful, and abused. And if we're not careful, if we're not conscious parents, these smaller spirals become part of a larger whirlpool of ever escalating rule breaking and punishments because every pull on the leash, every punishment, leads to a pull in the opposite direction.

Some of us have decided that this rebellion is a bad thing, at least when it's directed at us, and it must be quashed at all costs. We're the parents after all. We will not have our authority challenged. If that's your approach, your future will be either one of temporary, savorless victories followed by frustration, or a regime that involves punishments of increasingly extreme severity. Every study ever done on the subject of punishment (both parental and societal) winds up concluding that punishments only work under two circumstances:

  1. when the punisher is present; or
  2. when the punishment is debilitating (e.g., so disproportionately severe that one will never again risk it.)
Most of us are unwilling or unable to play the role of ever-present punisher. And I hope that none of us are the type to inflict debilitating punishments on our child.

The alternative is to accept rebellion as a demonstration that our child is healthy and normal, that it is not a sign that she is on her way to a life of crime and ruin, but rather evidence that she thinks for herself, trusts her own instincts, and will not be pushed around. When we accept this, we see that our job is to guide rather than command our children, to help them come to the understanding that behavior has its own rewards and consequences. I've written before about "natural consequences" and they apply here.

A parent taking away a boy's dessert because he hits his sister isn't the natural consequence of hitting. The consequence is that the sister is hurt and the evidence of that is the crying. That's where our attention ought to be. "You've hurt your sister," keeps the focus on the boy's behavior, allowing everyone to explore the consequence and potential remedies. "No dessert for you," turns the boy's attention on the "unfairness" of the parent who is pulling on that damn leash.

Rebelliousness is not a synonym for "anti-social" or "uncivil," it is merely a reaction to the leash. We all want to do the right thing, but none of us wants to be told what to do.

Here's some more reading on the topic of trusting children, the risks of relying on unnatural consequences, and the benefits of teaching through the natural ones:

Teaching Is Hard
Never Be Late Again (Or At Least Be On Time More Often)
Clean Up Time: "It's Not My School, It's Your School"
But Man, It's Worth It
Education Is Life Itself
Let Them Teach Themselves

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Girl From the Ville said...

Oh I think I have a little bit of a crush on you!!! A friend directed me to your blog and this post is brilliant! I have trying to describe the difference between punishment and consequences to others for a while now and have never been able to do it so eloquently. Thanks for this post ... looking forward to reading some more of your blog :)

Jeanne Zuech said...

Tom, you had me at ice also had me at the tweet of "punishment doesn't work." Bravo on this post!

Aunt Annie said...

This is EXACTLY what I think. (applause) It's all about respect really, but too many people make it about power. Bravo seconded.

If you're interested, I've got a blog post on saying 'no' respectfully to children here:

Janet Lansbury also has wisdom along similar lines- Google her!

Teacher Tom said...

@GFV . . . I have a crush on you too!

@Jeannezoo . . . You're posting some incredible stuff over on your site. People ought to get over there an check it out!

@AA . . . I'll click over! And Janet and I are FB friends. I do love her work!

The Schneldales said...

Ah, I needed this post today! When Maman is tired, Maman tends to offer "consequences" that look an awful lot like "punishment." I need little reminders, sources of encouragement/inspiration, every now and again. And again.

(And, GFV, that's hilarious to me, because for months now my husband has called TT my "boyfriend," because he sees him in that crazy suit on my screen each night as I read and become inspired.)

Nadia said...

I really needed to read this tonight. Thank you! I've been on that spiralling road lately with my 4 year old... it's been getting harder and harder. He's truly a great kid and stubborn like an ox... *ahem* I mean, quite persistent. So we butt heads a lot... I knew I wasn't on the right path, but I felt lost and unclear about what to do. Thanks again.

rachelle | tinkerlab said...

Yes!! This is exactly right, Tom. And I've noticed, quite proudly, that oftentimes my daughter's reaction to my apparently ridiculous rules is to negotiate with me! She searches for a hole in my plan and will explain her point of view through a more compelling lens. That seems like a good life skill to have, no?