If People Could Do Better, They Would

Incompatibility, punishment, and reward.

It’s easy to say someone is evil. We see someone doing something wrong, or hurtful and we call it, “evil”. Then we call them out. We share that with others. We try to impose our will upon the evil, thinking that if we exert enough pressure, they will change. We think that somehow, our actions will fundamentally change the behavior of the “evil-doers” when we call out their behavior. That kind of change is about as permanent as a corset.

I see it every day on Twitter. One person offends another, the offender is called out, multiple melees ensue. I’ve seen people share how they blocked someone else like it’s a badge of honor. Often, offenders are blocked, muted, and prevented from explaining themselves. For once we block someone, mute them, or give them the silent treatment, the conversation ends. There is no recourse, no accountability, and no chance for harmony.

I’m interested in making a change. So I’m rereading a book called, “Raising Human Beings”, by Dr. Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. I have read it cover to cover once already and decided that I needed to read it again. Raising Human Beings has been a life-changing book for me. In that book, Dr. Greene offers a perspective that completely changed my outlook on humanity. In his book, he offers hope that Mankind can finally set aside their differences and live in peace. I have been thinking for a long time about how we can get there.

The basic concept is simple and it starts with kids. Dr. Greene says that kids would do better if they could. Kids present challenging behavior when they lack the capacity to respond adaptively to the demands of their environment. Often, kids present challenging behavior when the demands placed on them exceed their capacity to respond adaptively. I got that on the first reading. And when I see people acting poorly, kids and adults, I assume that they lack the capacity to do better. But in the first reading, I missed an important word, “incompatibility”. It wasn’t until the second reading that I noticed that word.

Consider how we sometimes treat other people. We often think that when we see people other people acting badly, that they should be punished to deter such behavior in all people. So we impose all manner of punishment upon them. “Punishment” is a broad brush that includes things like, sarcasm, silent treatment, grounding, loss of privileges, detention, isolation, traffic tickets, incarceration and shame. On Twitter, that’s blocking, muting and callout culture imposed shaming.

The assumption we often make in American culture is that if we just punish someone enough, we can get that person to change, to stop their unwanted behavior. But I’ve seen it over and over again. No matter how hard we try, we cannot change people. Anyone who has ever lived with an alcoholic can see this. We criticize them, pour their booze down the drain, hide their booze, shame them for drinking, and even offer help to stop drinking. But they cannot stop of their own accord and no human power can stop them. We can only change our own behavior.

On a national level, I’ve seen people criticize politicians for their unwanted behavior. President Trump is a popular target. He’s a lightning rod if there ever was one. Sure, he’s an adult and it would seem that a grown man should know better than to do some of the things he has done. But he still does things that make us cringe, vent or roll our eyes. We criticize him for how he behaves and he keeps it up as if he’s oblivious to us. Sometimes, it seems he means to offend on purpose. Nothing we do or say will ever change that man. He has to want change, too.

When I read that some members of Congress sold off their stock shortly after being briefed on the coronavirus, I see the same thing. They would do better if they could. They could not overcome the desire to sell their stock, even if they knew that when the pandemic ends, the value of their stock will rise again. And we criticize them thinking that our words will change their behavior. They won’t. They would do it again if they could, especially if they could escape scrutiny. They could not resist the impulse to sell, and they didn’t.

I saw the same thing when a friend of mine showed me a video of a man in the middle east who had been crucified for a murder he had committed. Despite being steeped in a religion that commands him not to murder, he could not control his impulse to do so. Despite knowledge of the punishment awaiting him after conviction of the crime, he could not control his impulses. And there he was, dead only a few days after no food, no water, hanging on a cross under the hot middle eastern sun.

So when I look at my kids, I’m thinking about all of this stuff. They are young and they are still learning about who they are. They are learning their own preferences, capacities, feelings, thoughts, and dreams. They are little adults in a sense. They are engaged in the constant process of learning to be adults. But as they grow up, they encounter incompatibilities. And when they do, they present challenging behavior.

The question for parents is how to respond.

Let me reframe the discussion with a somewhat arbitrary and extreme example. My wife speaks native Vietnamese and she’s not fluent in English. Do I demand that she be able to read the book War and Peace and pass a difficult comprehension test on the book on the pain of punishment? No. This is an incompatibility, not a problem of willfulness. It is not a question of desire to please, either. My wife is fairly literate in English, she knows as much English as she needs to know. But I would never punish her over an incompatibility.

I am pretty much the same way with everyone. When I’m slighted by someone, I don’t punish. I just assume that they lacked the capacity to do better. They experienced an incompatibility between the demands of the environment and their skill set. When someone shoots an angry sentence at me, I don’t shoot back. I demur. I might even remain silent because I can consider the source. I assume that when people present challenging behavior, that’s about them and their capacity to respond, not me.

This isn’t to say that I encourage, support or endorse unwanted behavior. This is to say that I’m thinking about the root cause of the behavior. I’m not mind reading here, either. I’m just doing everything I can to avoid making assumptions. I don’t assume anything.

Here is a recent example. My daughter demonstrated an active resistance to doing her schoolwork on her computer. She loves working on the computer and playing games. She also had no problem completing other assignments. But on this one program, she resisted. So I inquired.

Instead of coming out with punishment, I found through a conversation with my daughter, that there was a problem of compatibility. The computer threw up an error about Flash not being installed or loaded. Well, this was on a Chromebook and I know that Google Chrome uses a custom version of Flash for web developers who insist on using Flash. I worked with my daughter to see where the issue occurred and fixed the problem for her. After that, she had no problem continuing with her work.

Kids present challenging behavior when they cannot solve the problems they encounter. In the previous example, I collaborated with my daughter to find the problem and helped her to fix it. Our job as parents, and as citizens, is to solve problems, not punish people when they lack the capacity to solve the problem on their own.

When I see people acting poorly, I assume that there exists an incompatibility between them and their environment. I assume that if they could do better, they would. I would rather work through the problem with them and help them to fix the problem than to punish them.

Rewards aren’t much better than punishment, either. I don’t even have to offer a reward for better behavior. Kids naturally want to do better. They want to please their parents, they want to demonstrate competence and even mastery of a skill they learned from their parents. So I avoid making any assumptions about motivation. I assume that the motivation is already there. The reward they get comes from the inside.

And when the reward comes from the inside, kids — and adults — become internally motivated to action. No one needs to tell me to get up, get dressed and go to work. I do that myself. My parents taught me, or at least they let me, figure out what I want and how to get it. So with my kids, I assume that they’re motivated and that they will express their desires. They will adapt to get what they want given the chance to do it.

And since they see me every day, I’m the model for their behavior. If I’m punishing, they will punish. If I’m easy to get along with, they get along easily. If I’m helpful, they are helpful. If I’m funny (and I am), they will be funny, too. If I make a mistake, I go easy on myself, fix the mistake and move on. My kids will then see that they can rely upon me to help them fix their mistakes rather than deride them for theirs.

I know. It seems like some fantasy, but it’s not. It’s hard work. It’s hard work to work against what I learned with my parents. But it's also easy work because I learned a lot of great things from my parents, too. What I’m proposing here goes against many American cultural norms. Just watch any action movie to get an idea of what I mean. Ask yourself if punishment is the solution to bad behavior and consider the possible outcomes and alternatives. I have.

We are going through a very trying time right now. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we’re going to have to solve this together. There is no time for punishment. There is no need for a reward. The reward for doing the right thing is to live it. The reward is the feeling we get when we help others.

It is my hope that if there is one lesson we learn from this disaster, it is that natural selection favors collaboration and cooperation. Natural selection favors compassion. Natural selection favors love.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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