I recently read this book on raising boys. Like any book, it had some stuff I agreed with and some stuff I didn’t (It’s as if the author and I were too different people! -a quote stolen from a blog commenter). But one concept stuck with me: “If you want someone to behave differently, first make sure they have the tools to do so.”
Punishment, lecturing, or stating “shoulds” does not elicit positive behavioral change in the absence of assessing-for and applying necessary “tools.”
Just ask the local library.
My own library, like all libraries, simply applies a punishment in the form of a late fee when books are overdue. When I drop off my books late, there is no radical appeal to my personal organizational and environmental challenges, and there shouldn’t be if they want to keep making money. In the absence of applying “tools” such as alarms, forced prioritization, and a system that minimizes kids stashing books in the back of the pantry, I, of course, continue to donate large amounts of cash to the local library fund. Duh.
Therefore, if you want a behavior to change, the first thing to ask is, “What are the BARRIERS to change, and what are the TOOLS necessary to surmount them?”
Radically accepting the existence of “barriers to change,” or acknowledging even crappy limitations and inclinations as they are, is even a central tenant of therapy.
If I want a teenage client to become motivated to actually do his homework, I need to know all of his barriers to success: I need to acknowledge factors such as paralyzing perfectionism, legitimate fears for safety which derail learning, powerful environmental distractions, attentional difficulties, cognitive limitations, and expectations of failures (among other things). I then need to offer the “tools” to triumph these barriers in the form a tutor, CBT, removal from environmental abuse/violence, making video games/internet inaccessible during homework hours, a teacher applying verbal cues, and/or a stimulant.
If I want to help a parent with her goal to stop yelling at her already anxious kid, I need to understand and address the barriers to change: The parent’s own fears of inadequacy and fears for her child, her own unmet needs for control within her family of origin and current employment, her familial/cultural learning, the real underlying stress of her recent job loss in the current economy, her own neurological sensitivities to stress, and the way her husband will yell at her if he comes home without the toys being cleaned-up….. And on and on and on and on with all the messy variables.
If I don’t accept, understand, and address each and of the realities within this client’s functioning and environment, I will fail to address all of the barriers and the yelling will remain. In fact, my failure to recognize some of these realities without judgement or condemnation, would likely only ADD-TO her barriers to change. (Often times it is the case that failing to understand and validate exacerbates reasons behind the problematic behavior.)
Through these examples, I have tried to illustrate how undesirable behaviors don’t change unless they are first known in the actual context of the person’s current environment, historical experiences, culture, psychological/cognitive functioning, unmet needs, desires, and automatic coping mechanisms. Basically, a person’s unique experiences and realities must be deeply understood before anyone can even pinpoint the barriers to change and know which “tools” are required for surmounting them.
And so it is with trying to raise caring and successful kids, with criminal rehabilitation, with gaining employment, with addiction recovery, with increasing educational outcomes, and with any other aspect of life that urges positive and healthy human behavior.
You want change in your kid, your spouse, your client, or society? I say “Figure out the barriers to change, and then GIVE ’em the TOOLS!” or just sit there picking your nose. (Just seeing if you’re still reading.)
Just something to think about, says the therapist who sometimes writes blog posts after noticing herself having a way-too-enthusiastic conversation about well-managed half-way houses for addicts and who also thinks that one of the “tools” for employment is the actual availability of an actual job that pays at least as well as not having a job….
PS, Here’s another nice diagram to point out the ridiculousnes of talking about simply reforming entitlements instead of also offering “tools” to squash those blobs…err “sharks”: