By John Stein
Date Posted: June 15th 2013
John Stein no longer practises as a Behavioural Therapist. He let his certification lapse a few years ago. For many years he offered training workshops for those involved in child and youth care. He does not do this any longer but to be sure before we enter any slough of despair on John’s behalf, let’s note that his wife Jean and he spend a deal of time travelling internationally, while we celebrate all that he has achieved in a long career and of course we are grateful to John for the wise articles he continues so generously to provide for the goodenoughcaring Journal.
John gave most of his career, though not all of it, to human services, beginning as a police officer in Bethlehem, a city which formerly was the home of Bethlehem Steel. This Bethlehem is situated in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. At one time John took a few years off working in the human services to work as a construction manager building houses, and, as a car salesman. He wrote an article for CYC-online, “What I learned selling cars.”
Then and Now
Born in 1946, I grew up in the late ’40’s, the ’50’s, and the early ’60’s in Reading, Pennsylvania.I started school in 1950 and graduated high school in 1963. I remember things being so very different then.
I entered college in 1963, majoring in engineering physics. After one week in my first engineering course, I realized it was not for me. It was not very interesting to me, and it was a LOT of work. I changed my major to psychology. That, too, was a lot of work. But it was fascinating to me. Behavioural psychology was not so common in those days. I was fascinated by the work of Pavlov on classical conditioning and Skinner on operant conditioning, as were my classmates. Then came more fascinating courses, in social psychology, personality, group dynamics, industrial psychology, and behavioural therapy. I remember thinking, with all this knowledge, we can create a near perfect world in the foreseeable future. For kids in residential settings, we can create the perfect environment to promote the optimal development of children no matter what their problems.
And here we are today, in the 21rst century. It sometimes seems that rather than fewer children with problems, we have more children with problems. And my ‘ideal’ residential programs…they are few and far between. What is going on?
I remember playing on the sidewalks and playgrounds with my friends, my playmates, ever since I was four years old. We played cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, and army. Our tricycles became horses, cars, or motorcycles, as did our bicycles later on. We made up stories as we went along. Later, we played baseball, American football, European football, and basketball. We rarely had enough for full teams, so we made up rules so we could play with only one, two, or three people on a side. We officiated our own contests while we played. We learned to cooperate. If we didn’t cooperate, we couldn’t play together.
When I started school at the age of four, well, I don’t remember kids with unmanageable problems, or kids with diagnoses and medication. Our teachers seemed to be able to manage us. One of the first things I remember, in kindergarten, is being taught from the very beginning, “cup and saucer.” This meant that, when our teacher said “cup and saucer,” we were to take our seats and place one hand made into a fist, the cup, into our other hand, open underneath–the saucer. And it worked. Whenever we got a little rowdy when we were allowed out of our seats for activities, our teacher said, “Cup and saucer,” and we all ran to our seats. Our teacher didn’t have to get us to stop what we were doing–she had us trained to do something else at her command.
We all walked to school in my home town. Elementary schools were small and located in every neighborhood. The four junior high schools were larger and some of us had to walk a little further. But even for our one high school, everyone walked, except for a few kids who had jobs and a car, and those who used public transportation in bad weather.
I remember the sun streaming in through a wall of large windows, three meters high, in all my classrooms, or, on a cloudy day, at least a lot of light. And through the sixth grade, I remember recess every morning and afternoon. If we couldn’t go outside, our teachers would have us move desks out of the way so we could have relay races or play snatch the bacon. It seemed as if our teachers enjoyed recess as much as we did.
I remember an open house at the start of first grade. My teacher met with my mother and me and explained that I was going to start getting homework in arithmetic. That scared me. I had heard about homework. Then, my teacher told my mother,“I don’t want you to help him. Homework is his responsibility.” Wow. I was given responsibility all to myself, without Mom. I liked that. “We are teaching things differently from the way you were taught,” she continued, “and if you help him, he will get confused. Besides, I need to know if he can do the work, not if you can. If he doesn’t understand, it’s my responsibility to fix that.” So my teacher was taking responsibility, too.
And we learned, some of us faster than others. We had different groups for reading, lions and bears and such, some learning quicker than others, but we all learned to read. And we all learned to figure–basic arithmetic, some quicker than others, but we all learned. Being a good student, I sometimes felt for the children who struggled to learn. Then, I noticed that everyone seemed to be good at something. Glen, not a good student, was the fastest kid in school. No one could catch him on the playground at recess. Joe was devastating at dodge ball. Frank, well, he was just so personable everyone liked him. Carey could draw better than any of us and often had his work posted on the bulletin board. Jim was strong; he was the only one who could do more than one pull up on the bar. Some could sing. I wasn’t too good at many of those other things.
I also remember most mothers being home while their husbands worked. Mothers who did work usually arranged for grandparents or neighbors to feed them lunch and care for them after school. Mothers, as I recall, carried babies around in their arms. At home, children were put in playpens in the living areas while their mothers did their housework, able to see everything and play with their toys. In cars, mothers held infants in their arms. When they got a little older, they put them in car seats that were hung over the seat back in the front seat next to the driver. They could see everything and interact with the driver and the passenger.
Occasionally, being children who did not yet fully understand the workings of the world, we misbehaved. I do not remember much punishment being meted out, either by my parents or by teachers, either to me or to other miscreants. Rather, they would explain to us and help us to understand what was wrong with our behaviour, about the effects our behaviour had on other people and why we should have known better. We were sad to have disappointed our parents. Worse, we were embarrassed to have our teachers teach us the error of our ways in front of our classmates. We learned pretty quickly to behave more appropriately, to think about the consequences our behaviour might have on our classmates and others. Embarrassed, we seldom repeated those behaviours.
Recently, there was a column by a child psychologist who was answering a question from a mother who didn’t know what to do with her obstinate and uncooperative daughter. He advised the mother to confiscate her favorite possessions while she was at school and hide them for a few weeks where she couldn’t find them, possibly in the attic of someone else’s home, to be returned only when she began to cooperate. There was a feature on the news a few days ago about record numbers of children in the US being diagnosed with Autism.
There was a column by a physician answering a parents’s question on how to be sure her children were safe at the playground. He instructed the parent on how to evaluate the surface under the equipment for softness and adequate size, and opined that children should always be supervised by an adult when playing on the equipment. And a column by a new feature writer in our local paper. introducing herself. She will write about people she meets on the bus, on the street, and in waiting rooms, and about her four children and getting homework done and checked each night and the charts posted in the kitchen about behaviour and chores, and how if they sass her, they lose a privilege. She wrote that her parents never had to use such a system on her and her sister. They just told them what they needed to do and they did it. Today, parents have to compete with cell phones and tv and the computer and so many other distractions, she said. And a column about the proper use of car seats and how children under one year must be placed in rear-facing car seats in the back seat. There are countless articles and news features about childhood obesity being way up in the US. And how many studies about the incidence of ADHD? As high as 13% among boys in the US. Meanwhile, brain imaging studies show that the portion of the brain that deals with moral behaviour does not mature until about the age of 25.
I see so very few children out and about these days. The neighborhood schools on whose playgrounds we used to play, they are fenced and locked when school is closed. And there are fewer schools in neighborhoods, as we build larger and larger schools. It seems to me that most children are either bused to school or transported by car. The lines of cars at the end of the school day at schools in our town are phenomenal.
In our town where we live now, in Louisiana, we have a huge recreational facility with 32 athletic fields for American football, European football, and baseball, along with two gymnasiums and other facilities. It’s a very busy facility, highly utilized. Thing is, you can only get there by car, so children can’t play there unless an adult drives them.
It seems that children are more and more under adult supervision, from being transported to and from school to after school play and play dates. Organized sports, beginning with T-ball and European style football for five- and six-year olds. Scouts and dance and gymnastics. Our children seem busier than ever, but always, it seems, under adult supervision. Do they miss anything developmentally from having less time on their own, to invent and play games and play different roles, cop or robber, hero or villain? Do they miss anything from having to regulate their own behaviour and learn to cooperate with each other? I don’t know, but I wonder.
I see our new modern schools. Classrooms have only one small, darkly tinted double window in a corner where children cannot see outside when seated. The older schools with the large windows, the windows have either been replaced with smaller, heavily tinted windows, or large portions of them blacked out, the remainder heavily tinted. So many classrooms seem to have the blinds closed all the time. Is this to cut down on utility bills when air conditioning is in use? Or is it to keep children from being distracted from the important activities in the classroom? I suspect it’s the latter.
In addition, many schools have cut down on recess and time for free play, gym, or time ‘wasted’ in creative activities such as art or music, to place more emphasis on academics.
I remember in our psychology lab in college where we were each given our own little white lab rat and access to a Skinner box so that we could replicate some of Skinner’s experiments, you know, getting them to press a bar for a pellet of food and studying acquisition, cues, punishment, extinction, and more. Our professor explained to us that, prior to an experimental session, we were to put our rats on a deprivation schedule–no food for 23 hours prior to the session. During the 30 minute session and for 30 minutes after, our rats could have all they wanted, then back on the deprivation schedule for the next 23 hours. Then, our professor explained that this was not to make the rat hungry so the rat would work for food, but rather to elevate the rat’s ‘drive sate.’ When animals have unmet needs, he explained, they become much more active, increasing the chances of your getting the behaviour you want to reinforce. Of course, a pellet of food then makes an excellent reinforcement. But it’s the elevated activity that was the purpose.
And so when we put our deprived rats with their elevated drive states in the Skinner box, they were very, very active, running all around, sniffing everything, standing on their hind legs, then running some more. They were never still. They looked very much like a hyperactive kid with extreme ADHD. And soon enough, they approached the bar they were to learn to press.
It just makes me wonder, when I see children who can’t sit still, do they have any unmet needs? Are they hungry? Probably not. Do they have to go to the bathroom? (Hard to sit still when you have to go really bad.) Are they getting enough attention? Affection? Do they feel safe, secure, wanted? Do they need more opportunities to express themselves? Or do they simply need more daylight in their life, and perhaps a little more exercise or time to play? Simple needs, but important for children, I think. People, and especially children, are not made to sit still all day in artificially lit caves walled off from the real world. In my opinion. And the opinion of a few others.
In recent years, I have seen more and more infants being carried in carriers that fit in those rear-facing car seats, instead of being carried in their mothers’ arms. I see infants sitting on restaurant tables in the carriers. And I wonder about those rear-facing car seats. In many vehicles, the only thing an infant can see is the back of the seat–they are too low to see out of the windows, and they sure can’t see mom when she’s driving. Nor can she see or interact with them. Not a problem for some children, I know, especially when they are only in the car occasionally for an appointment or an errand, and they are definitely safer in the event of an accident, to be sure. But what about children whose mothers are often on the go, with lots of errands for the family and maybe some time at the gym? How much time do their kids spend in those infant carriers? How much face time and physical contact do they get with Mom?
Today, more mothers are working mothers who depend on day care for up to eight or ten hours per day, depending on their jobs and how long their commute is. I know some day care arrangements are excellent, but are they all? Then, tired from a long day, when they pick up their infants and return home to having to prepare dinner and perhaps attend to older children with their needs (homework?), how much face time do their infants get?
I’m not an expert on child development, but I believe that development of the brain depends on appropriate stimulation at the right time, and that different children have different needs. Is it possible that the brains of children who do not receive sufficient social stimulation during their first few months fail to fully develop the capacities they need for social interactions later? That their social capacities are somewhat stunted by this lack of early stimulation? Just wondering. I’m certainly not sure.
It seems to have taken over. Discipline today is most commonly used and understood as a verb meaning, ‘to punish,’ or a noun meaning ‘punishment.’ Many people, including professionals, seem to believe that the only thing parents and teachers have to do to get children to behave is to provide consistent discipline. Charts and consequences. My wife, a school social worker, tells me she can’t count the number of times she heard teachers tell parents to ‘make a chart.’ Lists of prohibited behaviours and their consequences. Occasionally, a reward for desired behaviour. What could be simpler? It’s just basic psychology.
Except that it is not basic psychology, and it is not simple. Simple behaviours such as reflexes that are not under conscious control, and simple voluntary behaviours that are under conscious control may well respond to rewards and punishments. More complicated behaviours such as social behaviours that are motivated by complex individual and interpersonal needs or desires do not respond quite so well to simple rewards and punishments.
Consider for a moment a child who feels she has been somehow wronged by an adult and wants to retaliate. She says or does something to make the adult angry. She knows that she is going to be punished if she succeeds in making the adult angry. The first punishment may not stop her behaviour. The adult isn’t angry enough, so she escalates her behaviour until the adult is livid, finally imposing the harshest possible punishment. Now the child is satisfied and stops her behaviour. In this case, the punishment is actually reinforcing the behaviour, showing just how angry the adult has become. But the adult thinks the punishment got her to stop. It wasn’t the punishment, it was the fact that she was finally satisfied with how angry she had made the adult, i.e, her need to aggravate the adult had finally been satiated.
By the way, how does one punish a masochist?
Further, when children attempt to conceal misbehaviour, the behaviour that receives the punishment is too often not the behaviour that adults think they are punishing. Rather, it is the behaviour that leads to children getting caught. For example, when children shoplift, they usually have strategies to avoid being apprehended. If their strategies fail, and they get caught and punished, it may not be the shoplifting, but rather the faulty strategy that is associated with the punishment. Instead of refraining from shoplifting, they just might devote themselves to improving their strategies to avoid getting caught.
I believe, however, that the most important problem with an over reliance on discipline is that it teaches children to focus on the punishment that might be imposed rather than other consequences of their behaviour. When adults rely on the punishment to ‘teach’ children to behave, they are less likely to teach children what was wrong with their behaviour and why it was wrong. In other words, they are less likely to teach children to behave themselves. The natural consequences of social behaviour are often much more effective reinforcements for appropriate behaviour or punishments for inappropriate behaviour than consequences that adults arrange. These consequences always occur–whether or not there are adults around. But they are effective only when children perceive and understand them. Adults must teach children about these consequences rather than distracting them from these real, naturally occurring consequences with artificial consequences that depend as much on adults as on children’s behaviour. Teach children to look at their faces to see how the feel about their behaviour. Or teach children to think about how that behaviour would make them feel. Punishment, after all, does not model or teach empathy.
Further, the best way to change behaviour is to teach competing behaviours that interfere with undesirable behaviour, making it more difficult or impossible. Good teachers know that it is easier to teach children to remain in their seats than it is to get them to stop running around the classroom. Children learn to ‘behave themselves’ when we teach them what they should do instead of trying to teach them by providing consequences for what they shouldn’t do.
Even rewards are not always so simple to use and understand. I remember coming home with one of my report cards in seventh grade. Mostly A’s. I was a good student. My father was home early from work and my mother told me to go show it to him. (He was often out of town and didn’t see my report cards). He was pleased, took out his wallet and handed me $10. A lot of money for me in those days. Then he said, “For each report card, I will pay you $1 for every ‘A,’ and $.50 for a ‘B.’” I felt insulted. I didn’t do well in school for money. I did it because I was a good kid and wanted to be a good student. I told him I didn’t do well in school because of money. The subject of payment for grades never came up again.
Whose needs are we talking about here?
When his staff came to him about a problem with a challenging child, a colleague of mine, James Rogers, would occasionally ask, “Whose needs are we talking about here, yours or the child’s?” So whose needs are we meeting with some of these changes? I think so many of the changes I have seen since my childhood have more to do with the needs of adults than with the needs of children. To be sure, some children are thriving. Others are surviving pretty well. But it seems to me, there are too many others. More than when I was growing up. It’s not scientific. Just my opinion.
We have become more and more obsessed with safety. Providing adult supervision from the moment our children leave for school until they return home. Supervising all of their activities when they are not in school. Sure they are safe from falls and accidents and predatory deviants. But at what cost to their development? Would they develop more of their capabilities if we left them to their own devices more often.occasionally?
We are trying to provide more and more instructional time. But children need more than instruction. Industrial psychology studies in the early 1900’s showed that assembly line workers produced more in 7.5 hours, with 15 minutes of paid breaks in the morning and afternoon (in addition to their 30 minute lunch break) than they did when working a full 8 hours without the two breaks. I volunteered for a time after Katrina at an elementary school. The kids would gulp their lunch and rush outside for the remainder of their 30 minute lunch. They had to be seated out there and were not allowed to play, but it was free time. Would our kids perform better in school with more breaks?
Would our kids develop better and perform better if we had more activities so that children who cannot achieve well academically can achieve in other areas, in art, music, on the playground? Would our children be more able to concentrate with more time outdoors and more exposure to natural light in their classrooms–you know, windows?
Would our children socialize more easily if we didn’t isolate infants in the back seat, strapped in car seats, facing the rear for their first critical year? If they were carried in their mothers’ arms instead of infant carriers?
Would the moral capacity of our young people mature before the age of 25 if we stopped trying to control them with consequences for every misbehaviour and instead taught them to think about other consequences of their choices and behaviour? If we allowed them more time on their own to work out differences with their playmates?
I don’t know how much of it has to do with computers and cell phones and texting and all that. I wonder whether computers and tv and cell phones are a distraction, or whether they just fill the void because there is less to occupy our children unless adults can make the time to take them and supervise them.
I think sometimes that I simply do not hear enough about children’s needs these days. I certainly don’t know about any of these things, I just wonder.