In praise of verbally defined limits and rationales

It has become a popular middle class notion [1] that saying No to a child is a bad thing. Like most of the mistakes we make as we ride the pendulum from unreasoning strictness to unthinking permissiveness, there is a little truth at the base of this mistake.

Criticism is a good thing in the way that pain is a good thing. As a rule, it contains information we need to have. Sometimes not. [2] But constant criticism, like constant pain, is a really bad thing and the goal should be to use it when it is the best tool.

Tools and alternatives

The “tool” metaphor may seem innocuous, but it is not. When you look at the other causes of criticism which it sets aside, you start to get a better picture of how fundamental it is.

  • Criticizing because you are angry or tired or sleepy or are “at the end of your rope” is set aside. It isn’t that those criticisms won’t happen; it is that they won’t be justified by the tool metaphor.
  • Criticizing because the person—the spouse, the friend, the child, the pastor, the Executive Director—deserved it, is also set aside. What they “deserve” is a complex moral judgment and it is hard to be confident in making it.

“What will work,” by contrast, is a much more readily available judgment and it is the standard to which the tool metaphor directly leads.

jlawyer 1And I think that is why we swing back and forth from criticizing too much and criticizing too little. In this essay, I am going to come out boldly in favor of criticizing just the right amount. I don’t think anyone is going to have trouble with that idea. Goldilocks didn’t. And then I am going to try to justify that standard using an argument I had never heard before today and even today, I didn’t hear it until I heard myself making it.

Here’s the idea. By “criticism” I mean something simple like “Don’t do that” or “Stop doing that” or even, “Don’t even think about it.” The reason why he—I mean to use the male pronoun here, not the generic “he” [3]—shouldn’t do it or keep doing it or begin considering doing it needs to be clear to him.

Further, it needs to be acceptable to him. [4] And if those two criteria seem too much, consider his situation without them. He is criticized for reasons that are not clear to him and/or for reasons that he has considered and found to be inadequate.

jlawyer 4The alternatives, as I have seen them and read about them, are distraction and reinforcement of positive behaviors, both of which are good tools. They make the need for explicit criticism less urgent. They make the difference, to return to the pain metaphor, between episodic criticism, which contains valuable information, and endemic criticism, which is just the pain background of your life.

Distraction is good because it stops the behavior. The child, being distracted by something else, stops doing the undesirable thing and, having been distracted enough times, learns not to do it at all. On the other hand he never learns, by being distracted, why he shouldn’t do it. Similarly, praising good behavior—unless the praise is endemic and therefore meaningless—makes the behavior more likely to recur and it becomes part of “what I do,” and eventually of “who I am.” But, again, the knowledge of why the bad alternative is bad, is never set in language that he will need to be able to produce.

The words that define the boundaries

The goal of the approach I am pushing today is to equip the child with the language he will need to establish and justify the boundaries of good behavior. [5] There is no need at all to get into an argument about whether practicing good behavior that has been modeled, but not formulated verbally, is better than “good behavior” that has been formulated verbally (preached) but not modeled (practiced). A formulation like that, which is a commonplace in these discussions, imagines that the one approach is the enemy of the other. It is not.

Ask this rather. Is a pattern of behavior that is BOTH modeled and justified verbally, better for the child than behavior that has been EITHER modeled OR justified, but not both. It is obvious that the question as I have reformulated it, is very kind to the perspective it relies on. That is equally true, of course, of the previous argument (that performance and justification of behavior are naturally antagonistic), but it is not obvious. I am not sure why it is not as obvious, but if you want to assure yourself that it is true, try engaging a young middle class parent in this discussion.

I double dare you. I double dog dare you.

I am making the argument that the careful justification of boundaries by using words is crucially important. [6] I am not entirely sure just what the mechanisms are by which this effect is achieved, but I am going to take the rest of my space and the rest of your time in this essay probing some possibilities.

Let’s start with the “jailhouse lawyer phenomenon.” Many young boys I have seen,jlawyer 3 including myself as a young boy, resisted the rules by picking them apart. A fully verbalized and internalized norm would be applied reasonably to the situation. So “Don’t forget to wash your hands” would reasonably apply to anything else that was dirty, especially dirt that would be visible to other family members. The “jailhouse lawyer” kind of kid would happily come to the table with a big smear of dirt on his face and argue, when confronted with his misdeed, that he was asked only to wash his hands.

And that’s not even one of the inventive ones. Now it is true, I will admit at the outset, that kids who get a good share of their entertainment from verbal sparring with their parents, will wring the juice from every ambiguity just for the pleasure of watching it drip. And up a certain point—I have passed that point as a child and have watched it being passed as a parent—it is a game that can be well and honorably played by everyone. But there is no denying that the incessant challenging of every rule on the basis of some technicality or other, can get wearisome and is sometimes done with hostile intentions.

The ones I am thinking about are those that are done to establish just what the rule is. I want to argue that the current dominance of indirect modes of “instruction”—the distraction and the positive reinforcement models—leads to real uncertainty about what the rule is and how it can best be applied. Little boys, I am arguing, should be equipped with clear and consistent verbal formulations of the rules and a good clear picture of what the boundaries look like. I want them to get the verbal tools as well as all the others. I think a carefully worded statement of what the rule is, what the intended outcome of the rule is, and what several kinds of violations looks like, would be a great help to these boys.

Some will argue…

That’s the argument. Now, before shutting the presses down for the day, let’s look at some of the boundaries. Some idiot, reading this argument and finding it offensive, will argue that children—boys as well as girls—should be “shown, not told” what behaviors are right and appropriate. I call these people idiots because they are insisting that these two invaluable tools of childrearing—showing and telling—are opposed to each other in some way; that the one precludes the other. My argument is that both together is better than either one alone.

Some will argue that the reliance on verbal accounts of the rules and the reasons for the rules will only multiply the jailhouse lawyer syndrome, which I spent some time deploring. I grant that their concern is reasonable—or at least not unreasonable—but I argue instead that a lot of the verbal sparring is an attempt to establish just what the rule is, just why there should be such a rule (the outcome measures), and whether the alternatives are really as bad as they are said to be. Those are things a little boy needs to know if he is verbal himself and if he is expected to internalize these rules and make them his own.

In a case like this one the “jailhouse lawyer” response is not an alternative; it is just a phase one goes through on the way to owning the rule for himself. And, as wearisome as it might get sometimes, as a phase in developing a clear and generous autonomy, it is surely worth it.

[1] The class basis of vigilant criticism is based on the idea that working class kids can’t afford to make mistakes because the resources needed to recover from those are not available. That is one of the sources of the anger directed at the kids from professional families. The best account of this discrepancy I have seen is in Joan C. Williams, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate.
[2] There was recently an article in the New York Times about pain that is neurological in origin and it contained this line from Dania Palanker. “I know that it’s just that my nerves are broken.”
[3] For which there is not, as yet, an adequate replacement.
[4] Eventually. The necessity of this standard needs to be absorbed into his sense of who he is and it needs to be the kind of standard he can reproduce in his own language when he needs it.
[5] The choice of the word “boundaries” does not imply that they are static.
[6 I believe it is especially important for boys, but I am not going to have a chance to get into that in this essay.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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