Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rebellion Is Built Into Us

Not long ago, I posted links to my "greatest hits" based on readership statistics. Jeanne from Zella Said Purple then asked me if there were any posts that I wished had enjoyed a larger readership when they were first published. This is one of those, originally published in July, 2011 under the title 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 stuff our rebellious urges, but we always grow to despise those dictatorial bosses or teachers. If we do well it's usually "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, that 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 likely 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 his 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's merely a reaction to the leash. We all want to do the right thing and 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:

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Suzanne said...

I experience this every time I read something great on fb, then it tells me to "like" or "share" it - and just because I've been told to - I won't. I am going to share this post though, thanks for NOT telling me to!

diane said...

ohhhh, I'm with Suzanne there!!!

Mary said...

I can't decide what I think of the post because I was too distracted by the dog pulling in the opposite direction analogy.

We just visited the Canadian Guide Dog training centre (really interesting!!!) The trainer commented that most people don't ever train their dogs not to pull in response to a tug on the leash, and many aren't even aware that you can do this. So at least by guide dog training standards, a dog that pulls on its leash is not a well trained dog.

Furthermore: "No one likes to be told what to do" - I don't agree that this is always true, though I get what you are saying. I just think that most people (myself included!) prefer to receive some kind of instructions, guidance and even "orders". Imagine arriving at a community centre to help clean up. When you arrive there are several hundred people milling around. In that situation, if someone doesn't show up with cleaning supplies and direct folks with specific goals, not only does the community centre not get clean, but about half the volunteers mill around miserably until they've decided they can go home.

Anonymous said...

I really do believe in this, but I struggle with it so often, in fact, failing miserably with it again just tonight. I asked my 3 1/2 yr old son to clean up his toys - we live in a small house and have little floor space, and they had expanded across the living room floor, and it was getting close to dinner time. I explained that with so many toys out, that it is hard to walk through without stepping on them and hurting our feet. He would say ok, and then ignore me. I explained that just like at school, where we have to pick up our toys when we're done before getting more toys out, that we have to put our toys away at home too. He continues to ignore. He asks to go outside and see our deck garden, and I say sure, but first you have to clean up your toys, as we literally can't open the door to the deck as toys are blocking the door. This keeps going on, but continues to escalate, eventually ending with me snapping, and carrying him crying to his room for a timeout. I feel horrible, and hate that I reacted that way, but am frustrated that he repeatedly wouldn't clean up, despite my attempts to explain logically, explaining the consequences of not cleaning up - hurting feet, breaking toys, unable to open the door to the deck. Now I feel like a horrible mother (plus my back hurts as i'm not supposed to be lifting him right now). My husband believes our son will just keep pushing me, testing my limits, and that disciplining with timeouts, getting toys taken away, etc are necessary, but should be done calmly without emotion or anger, which I often fail to do as I've been pushed to the point of frustration. Which of course then makes me feel even worse. I really, really want to believe in this approach, but would love to hear from others who struggle, and any advice they have to better handle situations like these. How do you instill empathy and respect around cleaning up, without it turning into a power struggle?

Teacher Tom said...

Oh, my dogs are not "well trained!" That said, if I say, "This way," instead of pulling the leash, they hop to. My mistake with the dogs is always forgetting to "talk" to them.

I participate in a lot of community "clean up" type projects ("All hand's on deck!"), including 3 times a year at my school. Someone does have to be in charge of things like providing supplies, but there is nothing that sends people home faster than a person who "directs." I'm most successful in the leadership role when I make a list of things that need to get done and let folks figure it out for themselves. Our motto is: "Whoever holds the paint brush decides what color to paint it!"

This is the thought experiment I like: Tell your husband, "Vacuum the living room!" I'll bet the odds are quite slim that he'll do it. More likely is that it'll turn into an argument on a topic entirely unrelated to vacuuming. If you instead simply say, "Boy, this living room could really use a vacuuming," the odds go way up that he'll do it. He still might not do it, but the odds do go up and the discussion will be about what to do with the dirty living room.

Anonymous said...

"Boy, this living room could really use a vacuuming," - oh, that would never work either with my husband. He'd consider that me being passive aggressive. Certainly the "Vacuum the living room!" approach doesn't work either. Is there anything wrong with just asking "Can you vacuum the living room?" or "Honey, would you vacuum the living room?" or "Dear, can you do me a favor and vacuum the living room?". The question is, how to respond if he just says "No."...

Mag said...

With my kids, I always started out by cleaning up after them. I'd make it completely a non-issue, except that sometimes I'd point at a toy I couldn't quite reach and ask politely for them to bring it to me. We progressed from there, with them doing more and me doing less, until, "Will you please put these toys away?" became almost the same request as "Would you hand me that toy, please?" had been originally. It could be that my kids are naturally helpful, I suppose...