Providing Discipline and Structure for the Edison-Gene Child
Separating Person from Behavior
I was in the local food co-op recently, and about four feet from me a two-year-old child in a shopping cart reached out from the cart and grabbed a bag of dried sweetened pineapple pieces. “Mine!” he said, tossing them into the cart.
His mother’s reaction was immediate. She grabbed the pineapple from the cart and put it back on the shelf, then turned and glared at her son. “Don’t be a bad boy!” she commanded, wagging her finger in his face.
His reaction looked to me like a mixture of pain and pride; the former from mother being unhappy with him, and the latter from some inner knowledge of identity, confirmed by her words. He reached into the cart and grabbed a can of soup, glancing at me, his audience, and prepared to throw it on the floor. Mom intervened by roughly grabbing the can and again demanding that he not be bad, this time giving him a slap on the hand. I found my cookies and moved away as the little boy began looking for a new audience for his behavior.
Whenever we react to a person’s behavior--particularly a child’s--we can do it in either of two primary ways. One addresses the individual’s personhood and ties it to his behavior, and the other addresses his personhood and disconnects it from his behavior. This is a critical distinction.
People who think they are their behaviors are caught in a continuous loop: in order to define themselves or to feel okay about themselves, they must continually bounce their behaviors off other people. Most people who start with this as children also become early and vulnerable targets for the advertising industry, whose primary message is that you are your possessions or that you are your body.
In each parent/child interactive situation in which the child is defined by his behavior, the “I am” center of his personhood becomes disconnected from any state of inner centeredness. Happiness and selfassurance come only with doing or getting and have no relationship to simply being, to “I know who I am, and I’m larger and deeper than what I do or what I own or what my body looks like.”
The lack of this important self-knowledge begins with parents or the media telling children that they are their behaviors. Thus the alternative to saying, “Don’t be a bad boy,” is to say, “If you do that, we won’t be able to continue shopping.” For a more severe behavior, it may even be, “I love you so much that I’m not going to let you do that.” It brings the core of the interaction back to the community of parent/child and doesn’t speak at all about the child as a bad or good person.
Break the Pattern with a Positive Message
The child in the supermarket also reminded me of one of the best lessons in childrearing that Louise and I ever learned. A friend of ours, an NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) practitioner and psychologist, shared it with Louise back in the early 1980s.
One of our children was in the habit of throwing fits in the supermarket, demanding things and shouting loudly when the demands weren’t met. We’d tried both placating and punishing, and neither worked; the behavior just continued. Our friend had a two-part suggestion. “Do something unexpected,” he said, “and do it in a way that reinforces both your love and the idea that life can be fun.”
We started by priming our child during the day, talking about how much fun Louise was going to have shopping in the afternoon. “Would you like to have fun with me at the store?” she asked our four-year-old. “Yes!” was the enthusiastic reply.
When they got to the store and were going through the aisles, our child began to throw the predictable fit in the predictable place. At that point, Louise had a shopping cart only half full of food. “Oh,” she said, “I thought you wanted to have fun with me here. But if it’s not fun for both of us, it doesn’t work, and it’s not fun for me if you’re throwing this fit.”
She propelled the cart--complete with demanding child--to the service counter in the supermarket, where she said to the startled clerk, “I came to the supermarket to have fun shopping with my child, but my child doesn’t want us both to have fun, so I’m going to leave these groceries here, drop my child off at home, and come back alone to finish having fun shopping.”
“Okay,” said the clerk, nodding the way people do to the inmates in an asylum.
Louise picked up our child from the cart, drove the two of them home, came into the house, and said to me, “Our child wasn’t willing to let us both have fun at the supermarket, so will you baby-sit while I go back to the store to have fun shopping?”
“Of course,” I said, watching our child’s astonished expression. “I hope you have a lot of fun!”
“I will,” Louise said cheerfully as she went out the door. It was the last supermarket fit we ever experienced, and the story highlights one aspect of how many hunter-gatherer tribal children are raised: interactions are cooperative and positive, even as the adults clearly define the parameters of behavior and the values that underlie those parameters.