Eons ago, when I was a graduate student studying to become a clinical child psychologist, I had a mentor who exhorted me to “water the flowers and ignore the weeds” when it came to a child’s behavior. What she meant by this hopelessly simplistic (and, depending on the child and the circumstances, marginally effective) formulation was that one in authority – a parent, coach, teacher, therapist, et al. – could and would exert a positive effect on a child by praising his “good” behavior and (to the extent possible) ignoring his “bad” behavior. If, after all, behavior is a function of simple behavioral mathematics (praising = reinforcement and ignoring = extinguishing), this formula ought to work pretty well.
Alas, we humans and our environments are a bit more complex than this equation implies. For one thing, each child and his hard-wiring is unique. Some kids are very motivated by words of affirmation and will run through a plate-glass window to receive them. At the other extreme, some youngsters couldn’t possibly care less if you approve of their activity or attitude. Most are somewhere in between. They might do a quick, even subconscious, calculation to determine whether the benefit of receiving praise (or other reward) outweighs the cost of the tedium involved in the requested action (e.g., making the bed, clearing the dinner table, overhauling the engine of your car, etc.). Of course, most children recognize at some level the role of authority in this equation. Even if they don’t care about your praise, and even if they think the requested activity is boring/stupid/unpleasant/unnecessary, they will still do it when commanded – accompanied, of course, with groaning, complaining, foot-dragging, eye-rolling, heavy sighing, and absurd disquisitions on parental abuse and the suitable punishments for offenders. Hypothetically, for instance, one might hear something like this: “What you’re making me do is, like, DEFINITELY abuse, dad. So-and-so’s parents never make him/her [fill in with chore du jour such as, say, take out the trash]. Why don’t we have a robot or something to do this like everyone else does?? I heard parents who make their kids [see bracket above] can be, like, sentenced to jail or fined or something. Seriously.”
Another obvious weakness inherent to this formula is that ignoring the behavioral weeds does not usually get rid of them, for they are “watered” by lots of sources – some internal, some external. I may ignore certain behavior, but those weeds will often be reinforced by something going on inside the person I can’t see or penetrate, or perhaps by peers over whom I have no control. This is true for the kind of weeds that grow in our yards and gardens as well. I may not intentionally splash the weeds using H2O from my watering can (well, let’s be honest: it would certainly be Krista doing the watering with her watering can), but the weeds might get some of the residual. And I certainly don’t have the power to direct the rain to hit particular spots in my yard and to avoid others. Moreover, weeds – of the behavioral AND the organic varieties – are notoriously resilient and hardy. They can withstand and even flourish under extremely harsh conditions.
This past Saturday morning we had a meeting of the weeds, so to speak. I cajoled the amigos out of bed to join me for a sunny and joyful few hours of weed-pulling around the casa de amigo. Daniel was the first to join me and took to the task willingly and with surprising focus. He became frustrated with how difficult some of the weeds were to extract, but otherwise was – for a short while – a happy warrior. Abby came out a few minutes later. She was all sunshine and light – truly.
“Hi, daddio!” she chirped. “Where should I start?!” I directed her where to begin and returned to the area Daniel and I were working on. As we denuded our patch of chickweed and prickly lettuce, I glanced backward to spy on Abby’s progress. She pranced about and happily plucked a weed here and there, leaving swaths of other weeds untouched and ignored.
“Ummm, Abby? You missed a few over there.”
“Oh, really? You want me to get, like, ALL those weeds?”
“Well, I’d love it if you gave it an honest effort. I know we’ll miss a few of the billions that are taking up residence. But, yeah, I’d like you to get the weeds in the area I’m assigning you. Thanks.”
The chirping ended and the sighing began.
At this point, Luke emerged, freshly showered and ready to adopt an attitude.
“’Sup?” he asked.
“Why don’t you and Abby take this section?” I offered, “And when you finish there you can move in that direction around the house.”
I was shocked that he reacted with silence and commenced working. This response, coupled with the fact that for more than two weeks he and Abby have not fought, is almost more than I can comprehend. In any event, he and Abby worked well as a team. She shared her sunny disposition (which seemed to rub off a bit on Luke) and he shared his obsessive-compulsive tendencies (“you missed that one, Abby – over there!”), both to positive effect. Toward the end of the two hours I asked them each to provide, I had to wrestle a little with Daniel’s attitude – but just a little, and Abby and Luke protested mildly at extracting some funky fungus-looking stuff.
All in all, a pretty decent morning for all of us: No one got injured, no one raised their voices in defiance or anger, we watered a few behavioral flowers, and – most importantly – we pulled a few weeds along the way.
Timothy Swensen is the author of the column series Virtue and Mischief. He can be reached at email@example.com. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.