As I observe the attitudes and behaviors of many in the contemporary world, it seems that millions of us, sometimes myself included, suffer from lapses in basic human skills we should have mastered long ago. Even though we did not necessarily understand it at the time, there were some things that were absolute necessities we needed to learn at a relatively early age if we were to function effectively in the larger world of interpersonal relationships.

We all recall those basic skills, even if we do not recall the actual acquisition of them. We learned to manage our basic bodily functions so we did not soil ourselves in public or in private. We learned to feed ourselves using tools other than our own hands. We learned to dress, including how to keep the buttons aligned and zippers properly closed. We learned to speak intelligibly using a language that could be understood by others because they shared this common language with us. We learned that we had a personal identity, including a name that differentiated us from others while living in relationships with others. We learned to play, for the most part, harmoniously with the other children in our lives. And we learned to live together in both vertical and horizontal relationships as we increasingly realized we were not the center of the universe, nor was anyone else.

What distresses me today is the reality that vast numbers of persons, who remain perfectly competent in toilet behaviors, eating in public without making a spectacle of themselves, and speaking clearly, seem to have lost those early skills of taking turns and living respectfully and harmoniously with others. To us all I would issue this important reminder, “The world doesn’t belong to you; you must live in it with the rest of us.”

When I think back upon the process of acquiring those basic human skills, I am reminded that I did not develop them on by own. Rather, at every step along the way I was significantly assisted by others. Early in our physical and social development we are highly motivated by praise and approval. I recall an amusing and somewhat embarrassing event with our oldest son as a preschooler. In the process of his potty training both his mom and I heaped lavish praise on him when he informed us of his needs so we could assist him prior to his soiling or wetting himself. At the time I was pastor of a congregation in Rainbow City, Alabama. One Sunday after worship several church families descended upon a new steakhouse that had recently opened. Not long after our party was seated, our son let his mom know he needed to go to the restroom. Taking the three-year-old by the hand, she led him away and a few minutes later they emerged from the Ladies Room. Pleased with what he had successfully accomplished, and breaking away from his mom who was only lightly holding his hand, our son raced across the dining room toward me, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Daddy, Daddy, I tee-teed in the potty. I tee-teed in the potty.” Needless to say, since many in the restaurant knew the Gregg’s, the entire place rocked with delighted laughter at my expense. But it remains true; approval can be highly influential in shaping human behavior.
In my own childhood I also learned the utility of sanction in the shaping of behavior. Positive feedback is a wonderful thing, but negative feedback is valuable as well. We all heard the phrases as children: “You know better than that.” “Why didn’t you let me know you needed help?” “Good boys/girls don’t behave that way.” Even, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” While not psychologically or emotionally healthy if overused, or used exclusively, such verbal restraints are useful in helping to develop habits and behavior patterns that will serve well over a lifetime. And in many instances, they may very well save one’s life, or prevent us from doing harm to someone else.

Another useful tool in guiding the positive development of youthful human behavior is that of resistance. Sometimes childhood resistance took the form of a parent, grandparent, or some other responsible person saying and sustaining, “No means no!” when we persisted in demanding that we have our own way despite the fact that we had been told that what we wanted to do was inappropriate for the time and place. On some occasions, even physical restraint was necessary to keep us from plunging over the edge of a precipice or running out into oncoming traffic.

In preschool and kindergarten resistance took the form of another child pushing back when we aggressively pushed, snatching back when we snatched away something that belonged to them, or reporting to adults that we were behaving in anti-social and destructive ways. Such resistance had value for it helped us to begin learning that there were limits to our personal autonomy.

But approval, sanction, and resistance when appropriate were only steps along the way toward arriving where we needed to be in our personal behaviors and social interactions. The ultimate goal was the development of a growing degree of self-discipline where we assumed responsibility for managing our behaviors, not because we were addicted to approval or feared sanction and resistance, but because we had learned that life and relationships were much more satisfying when we conducted ourselves toward others in ways we wanted others to conduct themselves toward us. Put another way, we had begun to ascend in the direction of what Abraham Maslow called Self-Actualization. While this is a human developmental process that can never be fully achieved, it remains possible for everyone who wishes to progress along the continuum in the direction of healthy, mature personal behavior. In this way we begin to manage ourselves in positive and meaningful ways because we wish to, not because we have to, or are afraid not to.

It is my considered opinion that contemporary culture has almost universally lost its ability to discern when and how it is appropriate to praise and signal approval for behaviors. Thus we heap praise and adulation upon many who engage in anti-social, and sometimes purely sociopathic, behaviors. We have developed a culture that reinforces violence, racism, misogyny, and political/religious extremisms by applauding and vocalizing approval of the words and actions of those who behave the most egregiously. And then, after having facilitated such aberrant behaviors, we give ourselves permission to imitate the behaviors of those we have elevated to celebrity status by our applause and verbal endorsement. As someone recently suggested, after all, when you’re a “star” there’s nothing wrong with behaving like a self-centered egotist; and everyone aspires to be a “star.”

Obviously I am concerned about the stresses and strains of contemporary culture, and the behavioral consequences of those stresses and strains upon us all. But it is not enough for me to simply point out the problems without offering some reasonable suggestions regarding their solution. When I reflect upon possible solutions I find myself being reminded of those very social/cultural tools that were used to help us to develop the disciplines of appropriate behavior when we were children. Now, I’m not suggesting that we treat the people around us as though they are misbehaving children, even when it appears to be true of some. What I am doing is recalling the words of a university professor who taught a course in Aberrant Behavior when I was an undergraduate. One day in class the professor observed, “A society will experience as much craziness as it is willing to tolerate.” Those words stuck in my consciousness as he went on to explain the difference between the aberrant, anti-social behavior of those whose mental conditions make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for them to manage their behaviors; and the behaviors of persons who elect to behave in destructive, violent, verbally and physically abusive ways for no other reason than that they are sure they will not be held accountable by the people around them. While the former deserve all the support and sympathetic guidance that can be afforded them; the latter must have signaled to them in various, but explicit, ways that their behaviors are not acceptable and will not be tolerated by those who share the world with them.

The question remains, “How do we signal to such people that their violent, abusive, and obnoxious behaviors are unacceptable and will not be indefinitely tolerated without turning life into an ongoing free-for-all where both the balanced and mature, and the unbalanced and immature, all end up behaving as though everyone is unbalanced and immature?” There is no easy answer to this question, but I do think we may find a beginning in the realization that, while there is no “one size fits all” methodology for enabling a more balanced and tolerant environment in which to live, it remains possible to use the tools of positive and negative feedback, sanction, and resistance, individually and in combination, to challenge the behavioral extremists of our culture to modify their tendencies toward behaviors that can only result in injury to themselves and others.

Feedback can be verbal as long as it is not couched in the language of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Better choices are, “I see your point but have you considered?” “I’ve given this a lot of thought, and this is a complex matter that can be understood differently?” “Are you sure this behavior is going to get you the results you really want?” Obviously there are other ways to verbally de-escalate tension and conflict. What I am suggesting is that we make use of them as a first response rather than as a last resort.

Feedback is also expressed in role modeling. Again, we must avoid suggesting, “If everyone thought, believed, and acted just like me the world would be a wonderful place.” Back in my seminary days in the mid-1970’s Peggy got a job as nanny to three children to supplement our meager income. The father of the household was a very successful business man who, as a young adult, had been in the maritime industry. To say he cursed like a sailor, and at the least provocation, is an understatement. Every morning when I delivered Peggy and our son to their palatial home prior to going to my seminary classes, the shouting, swearing, and crying coming from the house could be heard all over the neighborhood.  Husband, wife, and children vied with one another to see who could be the loudest and the most vulgar. They weren’t bad people, the father just had no sense of behavioral restraint, and everyone else in the family modeled their behavior after his.

One day the husband and wife asked, with a generous offer of additional pay, if the Greggs would live in their house for a couple of weeks and care for their children while the adults made a business/pleasure trip to the west coast. We agreed to do so, with some fear and trembling, and a few days later mom and dad, with everyone still cursing and shouting, kissed the kids good-by leaving us to do our best. The first night was a difficult, but we made it through. The three children watched as Peggy and I consistently refused to permit our son to imitate their behavior. The second night was quieter as we firmly role modeled a way of relating very different from that of the children’s parents. The third night, after dinner, I found the little girl sitting in my lap, the three boys gathered around, while I read a story. For the rest of the stay you could not have found four better behaved children, three of theirs and one of ours. Sadly, when the parents returned the cursing, shouting, and belligerence started up all over again.

What is my point? The point is that some people have lived in an environment of extreme behaviors for so long they have never had the opportunity to learn there are alternative, and better, ways to behave. As a child I quite often heard, “Don’t do as I do. Do as I say do.” Even then I marveled at the stupidity that could come out of an adult mouth. People need positive role models whose being, saying, and doing are consistent with one another. And such people have the capacity to inspire others to want to imitate their positive behaviors.

Appropriate sanction is also worthwhile when seeking to enable our culture to find more sane, reasonable, and productive ways of relating. Sanction takes many forms. Refusing to laugh at an off-color joke when everyone else is, constitutes a form of sanction that will be noted and reflected upon. Ending a relationship with someone because of their abusive language and/or physical behavior is a form of sanction. No one should have to live in a co-dependent relationship with a person who is so focused upon self that they have no consideration for the well-being of others. Refusing to permit one’s economic resources to be used to facilitate inappropriate conduct is a form of sanction.

And finally, there is resistance. Sometimes physical resistance is necessary, but should be resorted to only as a last resort. Other, non-violent, means of resistance are often useful in holding another accountable for behaviors that are counterproductive and even destructive. I recall an occasion when a mother asserted to a rebellious and belligerent post-high school son as he tried to get her to take sides with him against his father. Her words were, “Son, I love you, but you are trying to get me to make a choice between my love for you and my love for your father, my husband. You need to understand that choice has already been made; and I chose my husband, your father. If you cannot accept that, it may be time for you to find another place to live.” Her non-violent, but firm, resistance was a sobering moment for her son and, over time, he began reaching for the genuine maturity that should already have characterized his behavior at that point in his life. Refusing to purchase the products of advertisers who sponsor violent and sexually graphic movies, TV shows, and music is a form of resistance. Reporting abusive behaviors to appropriate law enforcement and/or social services organizations is a form of resistance. It matters not whether you are doing so on your own behalf, or on behalf of another. To use a biblical allusion, “We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.”

Will the above suggestions bring about an immediate positive change in the runaway belligerence and offensive behaviors characteristic of so many in our culture? Absolutely not! However, it is my conviction that simply saying, “I guess there is nothing we can do about it.” is a cop-out. I believe that the consistent, appropriate practice of feedback, both positive and negative, sanction, and resistance can, over time, bend the behavioral curve toward a more sane and affirmative course before our society collapses into unrestrained violence and anarchy. I hope you do too.   

Copyright:  D. Larry Gregg, Sr. 2023, All Rights Reserved.      

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