Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Democracy: for best results, teach your children the skill of self-regulation

I'm starting to notice a common thread in debates in social media: If people are wrong, punish them. I kid you not, people who think they are right think that they should punish the people they deem to be wrong, and attempt to do with their words. The righteous tend to talk a lot about punishing those who are wrong long before they talk about teaching what is right. What is right in political discourse is what we might call, "accurate information". You know, something we can back up with corroborating evidence, like a scientific study that's been peer reviewed.

For the divinely righteous, it is original sin to be wrong and that God must beat that wrongness out of us. But since God isn't presently available, they tend to take the initiative and impose the punishment themselves.

As I've said before, I don't believe in evil. The concept of evil is akin to superstition, it is an attempt to assign a supernatural cause to challenging behavior in kids and adults alike. It is also an attempt, perhaps an unconscious one, to divert attention from the cause of such behavior, for who wants to admit that an abusive leader learned to be abusive from his parents?

I'm keen on keeping democracy alive and well. I'm also keen on noticing and calling out challenging behavior in adults that hold political office or influence. We might know challenging behavior in adults by more familiar terms like, drunk driving, assault and battery, vandalism and theft. In government, we know challenging behavior as corruption, coercion and rigged elections. We see challenging behavior in adults when they engage in war, are dictators, conducting genocide or financing terrorism. It seems almost reflexive to call the most heinous crimes "evil" so as not to question the cause. "He's evil and that's good enough for me. Let's burn him at the stake."

For better or worse, we have a democracy, and such a fragile thing it is. Democracy is dependent upon all of us to cooperate together. In fact, it doesn't matter which form of government you choose, if the culture is abusive, hello tyranny.

To keep our democracy, what we have left of it and to build upon it, we must be willing to discard any notions of good and evil. Assume for the moment that there is only the confused (evil), and the less confused (good). Confused people don't know how to get their needs met without applying force. Remember, we're humans, so please, no talk about the animal kingdom and how the fittest shall survive in the comments. Darwin talked about love among animals, too.

There is ample evidence that people are capable of ruling themselves alone. They start to experience some difficulty in small groups and seem to come to a boil when the group reaches a few million. Much of human suffering can be avoided if we teach self-regulation. Who wants to tell someone what to do, check back in an hour to find that "it's not done" and have to impose punishment to "get it done"? Wouldn't it make more sense to teach self-regulation?

There are more than a few studies to show that teaching self-regulation works. I know, there's that science thing again, but bear with me. If you're like me, you might want world peace and if you've read a few of my articles on this blog in the recent past, you might notice that I'm sniffing the trail of what I think could bring world peace about, in our lifetimes.

I'm a ScienceDaily fan. I go there from time to time to check on news about materials science, stuff like graphene, nanotech, and superconductors. I'm a closet fan of particle physics and my study of particle physics has lead me to the conclusion that control is just an illusion. We're just a loosely organized cloud of buzzing elementary particles, if that. To me, that makes control over anyone else, especially kids, a fantasy far beyond human comprehension.

So it was with great interest that I happened upon a couple of studies that discussed the practice of teaching of self-regulation. "Federal report recommends teaching self-regulation in schools" is an article about just that on the ScienceDaily website. Here's the nugget:
"Self-regulation affects wellbeing across the lifespan, from mental health and emotional wellbeing to academic achievement, physical health, and socioeconomic success," said Desiree Murray, associate director of research at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and lead author of the report. "Unfortunately, prolonged or pronounced stress and adversity, including poverty and trauma, can delay children's self-regulation development." (emphasis mine)
Oh. You mean to say that poverty and trauma can introduce developmental delays in children? Trauma? You mean like, beating, spanking, and threatening of the same? Oh, yes, I do. They do. What are the alternatives?
"For optimal self-regulation, a child or adolescent needs to have a full bucket of skills and supports on which to draw," Murray said. "There are two crucial periods when children are developing their self-regulation skills the most -- in early childhood and early adolescence -- when teachers and parents can help them build the skills they need for the rest of their lives." (emphasis mine)
Skills? Wait a minute. These kids know the difference between right and wrong. I've seen them do it right before, so it must be a lack of motivation:
According to the report, strengthening self-regulation can be thought of like teaching literacy. Similar to literacy, self-regulation develops with simpler skills first, which build upon one another. (emphasis mine, again)
Self-regulation is a skill? Like reading? Yes, it is. But we have entirely different approaches to each. When a child fails at reading, we become empathetic and discard any notion of punishment and start teaching or get help to do it. When a child fails to regulate themselves, we call that "behaving badly", and resort to punishment for correction. What if we could correct the behavior through teaching and collaboration rather than punishment? We can:
Murray and her team outline a comprehensive approach to the development of self-regulation, which includes teaching skills through repeated practice and frequent feedback in a supportive context. They suggest providing universal interventions across childhood and into early adulthood, with a strong emphasis on teaching caregivers (including teachers and other school staff) how to support children. She said the keys to this support are warm and responsive relationships, paired with positive discipline and consistency. (emphasis mine, still)
The study above informs us that self-regulation is a skill taught by adults to children. This is not good and evil, folks. This is teaching kids the skills they need to remove any confusion they might have about how to get their needs met. The findings of that report are consistent with the works of Dr. Ross W. Greene, PhD, in books like The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings, which I've discussed extensively on this blog in previous articles, with a good example here.

Self-regulation is also important in the economic sense. "The secret to raising a smart shopper: Pick the right parenting style" appeared about 9 days later to inform us of the following:
The researchers created categories to define four basic parenting styles. Authoritative parents are more likely to tell children what they want them to do while also explaining why, which the researchers describe as "restrictive" and "warm" communication. These parents tend to relate quite effectively with their children and expect them to act maturely and follow family rules, while also allowing a certain degree of autonomy.
There were three other categories:
Authoritarian parents are also restrictive, but not as likely to exhibit as much warmth in their communication, explains researcher Les Carlson, a professor of marketing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "They are more likely to tell a child what to do and not explain why," he says.
Neglecting parents offer little guidance for their children's development and limited monitoring of activities. Indulgent parents are lenient, compliant, and give children adult rights without expecting them to take on responsibilities.
Their conclusions?
The researchers found that many of the studies showed children of authoritative parents had the best outcomes when interacting with the world around them. These children consumed healthier foods like fruits and vegetables, and made safer choices such as wearing a bike helmet. They also provided valuable opinions on family consumption decisions.
Again, we're seeing the value of teaching skills. Even when parents were restrictive, as long as the restrictions were explained, kids tended to have better judgement. Authoritarian parents told their kids what to do without any guidance as to why. Indulgent parents didn't offer much guidance as with the neglecting parents. Authoritative parents provided some limits and guidance on those limits while still allowing some autonomy. Authoritative parents were teaching the skills of critical thinking in consumer choices, whereas the others were not. I'd say parenting has a bearing on how our democracy functions.

Whenever we teach skills to our kids, we are teaching autonomy. When we teach self-regulation, we teach kids to find their motivation internally. When we teach kids critical thinking skills, we are still teaching autonomy. A generation of kids who are taught how to regulate themselves and their consumption habits are more likely to foster a democratic government than a tyranny. They will see autonomy as natural and will treat other people accordingly. They will find cooperation easier because they will know how to get their needs met, even in a group, even in government. They will foster a government that runs according to their experience.

In other words, when we teach kids the skills they need to live and to get along with others, they will be more inclined to pursue their own goals rather than to control other people to achieve them. You know, stuff like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
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