Recently the report on the London riots has been released highlighting a range of problems that contributed to the devastation last summer. In particular parenting has been brought into the frame along with the need for more support and opportunities available for young people.
It must be every parent’s worse nightmare to think that their child would become so caught up in events such as the riots last year and yet it has materialized that the 18 – 20 year old age group were the most prominent group amongst offenders, rampaging through the streets last year with children as young as 13 caught up in the fray. Although, clearly old enough to take responsibility for their actions over that time, how much was their behaviour influenced by the paths their lives have taken and what saliencies can be extracted by parents everywhere to help improve their own children’s futures.
It is a widely accepted fact that behaviour has several influences some innate, some that are mirrored and copied, some that arise as a consequence of a particular stimulus and others which are driven in response to either a reinforcer or a punishment amongst others. Over the years there has been much research into what drives our behaviour or indeed whether it is driven at all. Psychologists such as B F Skinner and Harlow, Bowlby, Ainsworth, and Bandura have all contributed greatly to our understanding of what influences behaviour through their various researches but critically how is any of this applicable to parents now in the 21st century?
For many a subscription to the carrot and stick mentality has many applications that help control desirable behaviour in children. The carrot acts as a reinforcer to either increase good behaviour or decrease undesirable behaviour whilst the stick serves to act as a punishment in order to stop unwanted behaviour in its tracks. The shortcoming with the stick, however, is that it only addresses the behaviour that is not wanted rather than necessarily encouraging the behaviour that is wanted. The carrot on the otherhand, can reinforce the desired behaviours in the shorter term, but all too often these carrots lack longevity – what happens when the carrot is removed? So whilst this mechanism for influencing behaviour is well used throughout society it has many shortcomings, the most obvious of which is the short lifespan in which they operate.
Here at RESET parenting, however, we have our own theory on instilling good behaviours in the longer term. For simplicity we call it “The Paper Bag” theory. In essence consider a paper bag. It cannot stand up by itself unless it is either pegged out to some external frame or it is filled up with, say, shopping. You may therefore consider that a child is the paper bag with the rewards (or carrots) that are offered to maintain and change behaviour upholding this child so that they are able to stand up on their own.
The guy ropes in this diagram represent the rewards (or reinforcers) that are being used to maintain the child’s behaviour effectively supporting the bag and keeping it upright. So for instance, the child in question behaves in a certain manner that is good and acceptable and the parent or carer rewards this using the positive reinforcement of a carrot, such as a treat. This is accepted as normal parenting in many sectors of today’s society and as is evident in the diagram above, these each serve their purpose very well in the short term.
However, consider what happens as this child becomes an adult and the reinforcers are no longer in place. They are expected to stand on their own two feet and enter adult life as a functioning and astute contributor to the world in which they live. Effectively the guy ropes are broken, cut or disappear. This is particularly seen when children leave school early and all the support systems that exist in school vanish overnight. What then happens to the bag?
Yes you’re right it implodes or collapses. The strings that have held it out are no longer in operation and as such the behaviour that has been taught on the back of receiving carrots can slowly be eliminated. This exemplifies the shortcomings of the carrot – great while they are there but useless when they are not.
What then is the answer to maintaining behaviour in the long term? Clearly in the case of the carrier bag, in metaphorical terms, it needs to be filled up rather than pegged out. If a bag is filled with goods, even if guy ropes support it in the short term, when these ropes are cut the filled bag clearly stands up on its own.
To translate, children’s behaviour, therefore needs to be intrinsically driven with less emphasis on carrot and stick and more emphasis on paving pathways internally to a positive future. They need to possess the skills that maintain good behaviour much the same that the bag contains the shopping. In essence the process of parenting in terms of behaviour needs to be therefore move away from the carrot and stick and move towards one which furnishes the child with strategies to reward themselves. These include subscriptions to autonomy, honour, dedication, ownership, focus, respect and responsibility.
This skill set consists of internal qualities that parents can help children nuture but they take time and patience. Nevertheless when the bag, or rather the child, is empowered with these as core values they also have internal reinforcers that can guide them through life much like a moral compass.
If they own their behaviour they will honour their behaviour. The balance of power is readdressed and respect comes into their natural alignment so that they are operating out of centres of free-will rather than those determined by the adults around them. That way, any carrot and stick that may be used along the way is backed up by the intrinsic mechanisms that ultimately uphold the child’s behaviour in the longer term.
Going back to the London Riots and the report, therefore, the question isn’t so much what support and opportunities need to be provided for our children, but more so what changes can be made to the way we bring our children up through an education programme to allow this intrinsic skill tool kit space to develop in each and every child’s life not just in the parental capacity but also in schools and communities at large.