These are stories illustrating some of the points in the essays.
Story 1: Manipulating Mom
I was a child, probably 4 or 5. I wanted my mother to play cards with me. I asked her. She said no, she had work to do. She was working when I asked her, and she kept working, so she obviously did have work to do.
I was sad. That day I let my sadness show. Then I exaggerated it. I looked as sad as I could. I had never done that before.
I don't know if I had any plan in mind. But my mother caved -- she saw how sad I was and she agreed to play cards.
So my behavior of acting sad was rewarded. According to behaviorist theory, that should increase the chance of my acting sad in the future. As a rule of thumb, behaviorism tends to work -- people do what causes them to receive rewards. So, the most likely outcome of my mother caving in was that I would act sad again.
But this story turns out different. I thought is was VERY NEAT that my mother would be there for me when I needed her. I could also see that she couldn't be there for me all of the time, because she had work to do. I also could work out that if I faked needed her, then she wouldn't know when I really needed her and when I was faking. Then she would have to stop helping me just because I seemed to need her. And that wasn't to my benefit. So, the best course of action for me was to maintain the status quo -- I could get something from my mom whenever I wanted, but I would only ask when I needed something.
I took her offer and we played cards. But I never again acted sad in order to get my way.
The issue is how you are going to explain this. Was I behaving selfishly? Absolutely. I had something (the ability to get my mom's attention and help when I needed it) and I was adopting the best strategy for keeping it. I was taking a pretty far-sighted perspective on things. In generally, the smarter and wiser your children are, the more likely you are to get responsible behavior from them.
There is also a social contract here, of my mom and I cooperating to have a good relationship. I also was not overly needy, so it was not a great sacrifice on my part to give up my mom's attention. (I should add that my mother's version of the story is that she taught me solitaire so that I could play cards by myself.)
Story 2: Trying Something New
I was a child. My father had taken us to the swimming pool. I was contemplating jumping off the diving board. I had never done it before. It of course looked scary, but except for that I wanted to do it.
My desire to do it wasn't quite as large as my fear. I needed a little boost for my motivation. I said to my Dad something like, "If you give me a quarter, I will jump off of the diving board." This had to be a good deal for him. He, like any parent, wants to see his child grow, do new things, and not be frightened. He did not care about a quarter; that was a reasonable sum of money to me, but not to him.
But he didn't cave. He said something to the effect that he wasn't paying me and if I wanted to jump off the diving board I could but that was my decision.
I consider that one of the profound moments of my life, though it is difficult to put that new insight into words and I fear I trivialize it when I do. It was something to the effect that I should pay attention to what I want to do and I should do what I want to do, not let others influence me. I did jump off of the diving board, if that is a critical part of the story.
I did something mean to my brother. I forget what. My father said to me, "How would you like it if we did that to you?"
I got it. I understood the Golden rule. This was a profound learning.
I think this illustrates the point that information can be useful. Recently, my daughter said she wasn't going to be nice to her sister any more. I didn't argue with her. I said, "Okay, but you can't be happy unless you are helping other people."
The "Bad Food" Game
I brought my very young daughter to a church play group. So there were a lot of children there ages 1 to 5. One boy in particular used to play with me. So, one day, he made a pretend meal for me and presented it on some of the miniature plastic dishes they had. I pretended to eat it. I pretended to enjoy it. I asked what it was I was eating.
He listed some horrible ingredients. Maybe it was mustard and broccoli. Maybe it had some glass or grass. Or worse.
As soon as I heard that, my eyes bulged out and I spit it out. Well, pretended to spit it out. It was pretty funny. He loved it.
He went and fixed me something else. One of the fundamentals of any children's spontaneous game is repetition, so we repeated. I pretended to eat it, I pretended to enjoy it, I asked what was in it, he listed some (new) horrible ingredients, my eyes bulged out and I spit it out. Then he went to fix me more.
A few other children saw what we were doing and joined it. Soon I had 5 children crowded around me, eager to feed me their creations.
Then....the first boy gave me something to eat, I pretended to eat it, I pretended to like it, I asked what was in it, and he said good ingredients. Ice cream and chocolate, or something like that. So I just kept eating it pretending to be happy. He maybe tried that once again, then he left.
There was a new child to take his place, feeding me something horrible. Then one of the other children fed me something nice. And one by one, every child in the room (past a certain age) went through the same process. They joined the game. They fed me something bad. They were thrilled by my reaction. They did it again and again. Then eventually they fed me something nice and left.
I remember one painfully shy girl watching and watching. She was the last to join in. I remember everyone else was feeding me nice things and this one sweet girl was feeding me horrible ingredients and being delighted by my reaction. Then she fed me something nice and left, and the game was over.
There is supposed to be this big issue, are people basically good or basically evil? The answer is very important. If they are basically good, you can let them do what they want and try to help them grow in whatever way they want; if they are basically evil, your primarily goal in parenting and teaching is going to be control and misinformation. If they are basically good, you can let them be happy, because they derive happiness from being good; if they are basically bad, you want to deny their happiness, because they get happiness only from being selfish.
Well, control and misininformation aren't going to work very well in any case, and this story seems to suggest that children are basically good. However, it is more complicated than that. They like to misbehave. And of course they can be and usually are selfish. We all are. But there is something fundamentally good about most people.
Story 5: Helping
One day I was walking into the library and an obviously handicapped older women was having a little trouble opening her car door. By the time I got to her she had the door opened, but that still left getting into the car. I walked a little out of my way to her car and asked if she needed help. She said she didn't, she could manage. I said "Great" and went into the library.
I did all of this in front of my 11-year-old daughter. As we walked into the library I realized that was probably a good thing to have done in front of her. Occasionally, as a parent, I get something right. I hadn't been thinking of my daughter at all and would have done exactly the same thing had she not been there. But it's nice to set a good example.
The question is, if I wanted to make this a better learning experience for my daughter, what should I have told her or explained to her?
And the answer is, nothing. It was perfect as it was. (I think.) As is, it was a clear memory for her. She didn't have to do anything to it, as is it would stand as a possible behavior for her, should she try to do it. I am saying that she is naturally good and would want to help people, this is now just going to be viewed as an alternative for her to do.
If she was confused, or if she had questions, she could ask. She did not.
If I add a moral to the story, there are several problems. One is that I potentially make it look like I did that to be an example for her, which would undermine the altruism of my action.
The second problem is the interference problem. I am interrupting the process of consolidating the memory. I am changing the experience and hence the memory.
You might think that my advice would add to the memory. There are several problems with this. The most notorious is that people tend to be wrong whenever they spout generalities. They don't think about them or know how to check them, when in fact generalities are very treacherous, very likely not to be true, and they require a huge amount of care.
So a parent's generality is likely to be wrong, which leads to the last problem. The memory, as is, is true. Experience is always true. So my daughter can accept it. If I spout some generality, my daughter has to defend against it. I might be self-serving. That's very likely. I might just be wrong even if I am not trying to be self-serving. That's very likely. So it is perfectly fair that my generality arouse my daughter's skepticism. And "skepticism" means disbelief. So, at the exact time I want my daughter putting information into memory, my generality stimulates her disbelief. Not a formula for success.
Postscript: A few months later, my daughter attended a group at the library. The librarian said that when she started to get out chairs to handle the overflow attendance, my daughter got up to volunarily help (and she was the only one who did that).
Story 6: Too Much Help
I was chatting with a woman who was complaining about how much time it took to help her daughter with her daughter's homework assignment. I argued that she shouldn't be helping her daughter. Actually, you can help a little if your child asks. But you shouldn't be doing the whole assignment. This woman was doing a lot of the actual work of her daughter's assignment.
I was further scandalized to find out her daughter is in high school. My arguments about not doing her homework fell on deaf ears, however, as the mother explained to me why she needs to help her daughter -- because the assignment is difficult and the daughter needs to do well.
Flash forward several years. I am standing around and this woman receives a call. (She was at work.) Her daughter had a flat tire and needed help. The woman was a little irritated -- how is she supposed to help, and why is her daughter calling for help? Actually, the mother was able to help. It turns out that the daughter was calling from a gas station, so the mother suggested that the daughter get the tire fixed at the gas station.
It isn't that parents don't help. It is our job as parents to occasionally help. But it is occasional help, and, with the exception of modelling cooperation and generosity, it should be mostly for things that our children cannot do by themselves.