Insidious Thing

Behaviourism is so deeply ingrained in our society that we often forget it’s there. Our entire way of life is based on the assumption that we cannot be trusted to function as a civilised society without a system of rewards and punishments. It bleeds into everything we do. For the most part, though, we don’t even notice. It’s always been there, so we pay it no attention.

Take, for example, our system of law. Do we really trust ourselves so little that we believe that the only thing ¬†preventing each of us from going out and murdering our neighbours is the fear of punishment? Isn’t that just a little bit terrifying? Folks still murder folks, so clearly the fear of punishment doesn’t work universally. Just taking away the law against murder, though, is unimaginable. On its own, it would just allow those who refrain from murder because of the law to give in to their motives.

To make the law obsolete, we have to do something different. We need to be able to trust human beings not to try to kill each other the moment we take the controls away. We have to create a culture of genuine care for others, not of compliance with Rules. We do that by changing the motivations of human beings. The Behaviourism paradigm will tell you that this is impossible, that humans are only capable of developing a sense of right and wrong in the presence of artificial controls that praise and punish them for their behaviours. It assumes that humans are essentially selfish, lazy and antisocial unless shaped to be otherwise.

To unseat Behaviourism as the dominant method of ensuring a functional society, we have to start with babies. First, we need to let go of the fear that without the control that praise and/or punishment gives us over our children, they will not develop.

“But…” I hear you say “…won’t they just become out of control little monsters with no punishment or reward to teach them right from wrong?”

I don’t think so. Imagine, for a moment, that you weren’t raised under the Behaviourism paradigm. Rather than doing things because you are seeking praise or avoiding punishment, you have a set of motivations that are based purely around your feelings and your interactions with the world and others. Rather than rewards and penalties, your motivations are about what you achieve for yourself, what’s fulfilling. This can manifest in creating or doing simply because you feel the thrill of a job well done, or enjoy the process. It can manifest in kindness to others because you value your relationship with them, and receive pleasure from interacting with them and witnessing their happiness and fulfilment.

It only sounds like wishful thinking, completely divorced from reality, because it’s an approach we’ve never even considered.

Imagine casting off all the fear that comes with building the foundations of your self-esteem on the praise or punishment handed down to you by your carers in childhood. An end to doing things because, as a child, your parents thoroughly ingrained their own tastes and preferences in you under the guise of discipline and morality.

Just as it’s possible for human beings to have morality without the carrot and stick of religion, it’s possible for us to have a sense of right and wrong without the aid of praise and punishment as children.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that children should be permitted to do anything they like, no matter how inappropriate or harmful, simply that we change how they learn to navigate the world. What I’d like to see is a shift from making our praise the central motivation for their behaviour. By taking time to explain the real-world consequences of actions, rather than creating artificial consequences, our children will learn more quickly and thoroughly why there are certain rules and conventions. Rather than memorising a list of rules, or things that are “good” and “bad”, we can teach them to empathise more effectively, to behave in pleasing ways because they see that it makes everyone happier and life more harmonious. Their self-esteem won’t rely on the judgements of others, leaving them feeling more secure in their sense of self. They won’t feel the unsettling fear that plagues most of us daily, that we’re Doing It Wrong.

Motivated primarily by their internal drive to do, discover, create, experiment and share, they’ll achieve more than if they were caged by our expectations.

I’m reminded of something I red in a feminist blog, about the joys of having more time for any number of things when you stop worrying about what others think of your appearance. By not spending time on makeup, hair removal and other time-consuming rituals expected of us, we reclaim time and energy to direct at more meaningful activities. Similarly, I expect that children who aren’t motivated by the praise of their parents will find more time and energy to grow and explore based on their own interests, passions and curiosity.

Where does autism come into this?

The autistic population is rather discriminated against when it comes this belief that Behaviourism is The One True Way. While we believe most people are just about capable of getting along as long as we use laws to stop them from doing truly dreadful things, we seem to expect that autistic people are not capable of any meaningful integration into family or society without their behaviour being micromanaged by therapists and parents handing out stickers or gummy bears. At the more troubling end, some institutions seem to believe that autistic people in their care can’t be motivated by anything less than food deprivation and electric shocks.

Myths like mind-blindness, lack of empathy and the idea that we live in our own world, oblivious to the social consequences of our actions have created an environment in which we’re trusted even less than non-autistic children to live without praise and punishment.

You can see the effects of this in many autistic adults. It doesn’t take long to find an autistic blogger writing about the trauma and anxiety produced by praise and punishment that seemingly comes at random. Like Skinner’s pigeons, many of us are bordering on superstition in our confusion about why certain punishments or praises have been delivered. We often hold deeply ingrained, but entirely nonfunctional anxieties that certain behaviours are Bad or Good, and hold ourselves to impossible standards based on the reactions we received as children.

Contrast that with reasoned, respectful discussions and post-event analyses that help us to work out what went wrong and why. Help your child (autistic or not) to draw connections between behaviours and their natural consequences. Help your child to explore their feelings, share their joy when they achieve something, without resorting to “good <verb>ing!” or compliments about their skill, intelligence etc.

Take away all the comments like “You’re so good at X!”, and “I like how you’re doing Y!”, and your child’s feelings of worth no longer hinge on their ability to do something well, or the frequency with which they do things that they have been told are Good. They do nice tghings for others simply for the enjoyment of seeing others happy. They believe that they are innately worthy, unconditionally loved by you, their guardians. They become more robust, taki g criticism in their stride once their self-esteem is not built on a foundation of the approval of others.

It sounds like Utopia. It sounds almost out of reach, and yet parents are quietly succeeding at it.

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