SYDNEY OCTOBER 2013.
“TELL SOMEONE WHO CARES” conference. Keynote Presentation
MY CHILDHOOD IN A LABEL-HAPPY SOCIETY
"GIVEN SUFFICIENT TIME AND REPETITION, A PERSON WILL BECOME WHAT THEY ARE TOLD THEY ARE" - Choose your criticisms and your labels wisely.
Over many years of working with children and their families it has become apparent to me that children are born into this world with a really suspect double legacy. These can be seen to be the product of both 'nature' and 'nurture' - and this is the topic I wish to address today.
The first of these legacies is the simple fact that in order to be born, you have to have parents. This, I think, is a most un-fortunate, and often even insidious situation. I am convinced that life would be so much easier, so less complicated if at least a child could start this journey without having to have parents.
Typically parents have been around, have experienced life for at least a few years - and typically have experienced enough, just enough, to get their perspective of the world really screwed up.
Unfortunately, much of the time, they haven't been around long enough to sort themselves out again, and still manage to get their knickers in a knot over an infinite array of insignificant issues.
This great accumulation of knicker-knotting issues makes its impact as a range of unmet expectations.
- and this is where the second part of the double legacy comes in.
The first suspect legacy is that as children we have parents. The second is that, by dint of 'nature' colluding with 'nurture' children are born WITH AN INNATE NEED TO PLEASE THEIR PARENTS.
Most unfortunate! Unfortunate in that the two legacies collude dangerously to the peril of the child.
The child is unwittingly inclined to constantly attempt to please the parent, whilst the parent is dominated by an insane compulsion to constantly MOVE THE GOALPOSTS.
We could summarise this as a statement from the parents to the children;
"YOUR TASK AS A CHILD IS TO PLEASE ME. BUT WHATEVER YOU DO WILL NOT BE GOOD ENOUGH, WE WILL ALWAYS WANT MORE."
And so right from the beginning of life a normal child is caught up in an ever-progressive, insidious and sanity-threatening battle to please the unpleaseable. An endless, thankless, but compulsive battle where one constantly strives to perform, and the other constantly with-holds approval - which goes on and on, until both have finally departed.
But what does this look like in real life? - if we were watching this play out in real life what would we see?
Imagine this. The baby infant is lying in his cot. Mother approaches and peers down at the baby, dangling 'dinner' as she leans over. Baby smells FOOD, and smiles in greedy anticipation.
Mother sees the smile, is delighted, picks the baby up and says "C'mon, give me another smile."
Baby is confused and thinks 'Hang on, I've already given you a smile, is one not enough, you want more? Is your name Olivia Twist?'
Baby likes his own little joke, and so laughs.
Mother is ecstatic - so what does she do? - she demands more. One is not enough, we want more.
Baby has already sensed a trap here, and says "Well, ummmm...."
To which mother responds "Oh look, he said 'mum' - now say 'dad'".
Baby is very confused by this new demand and says "Duh???"
And predictably mum responds "He said Dad - now say your sister's name - Wendy".
Baby has now had enough of this silly game, burps, and goes to sleep.
Whatever the baby does delights the parent, who immediately shifts the goal-posts and demands more.
The same occurs when the child eventually crawls across the floor to the couch, draws himself up on two wobbly feet, and takes his first hesitant step - in life. (This is a terrible mistake, there is no going back now!)
The cry goes out "He took his first step! Now see if you can take two!" All they want is more.
So the child looks around the room, staggers across to where the car keys lie on the coffee table, scoops them up and makes a bolt for the door. Get out while you still can!
One is never going to be good enough again. Once achieved, the goal-posts are shifted, and they want more.
And it persists during the school years too.
Your ten year-old comes running in after school - "Mum, mum, I got 7 out of 10 for my spelling!
"Great, well done, now get your home-work out and we'll see if we can get 8 tomorrow."
..... and on it goes. How sad, and how disastrous for the child who can never be good enough for his or her parents.
Is this a matter of Power and Control? It looks like it, but really it is something much more basic - it is a self-perpetuating cycle rationalised as being part of 'good parenting'.
But what is it, what insidious dynamic makes us as parents act in such a menacing manner? And yes, the answer is that it is all those unmet expectations in our own lives that causes us to want our children to achieve, and have their expectations met - whatever this means.
However, the aspect that I want to focus on here today is the RATIONAL that we use to cover, to disguise our own behaviour here.
To me, this is 'thin edge-of-the-wedge labeling, and the single label that we use to make all this acceptable is MOTIVATION.
We say that we are 'motivating' the child - motivating him to 'extend', to 'improve', and to 'succeed' in life. (Remember our unmet expectations?)
This is the label we use to rationalise our behaviour as parents, and it is simultaneously the word that stops us from seeing what is really going on.
But most of us don't really understand the concept of motivation. If truth be known, motivation is a personal, and internal thing. It comes from inside a person, and belongs to them - it cannot come from any outside person.
You, as a parent, cannot 'motivate' your child.
Sure you can threaten a child in some way - with some fearful outcome - but what is motivating here is simply their desire to avoid whatever evil painful outcome you have dreamed up.
Similarly you can promise a potential outcome, a reward that perchance the child may be motivated to earn.
"I will give you $5 for every exam score over 60%"
A child from a very poor family may feel very motivated to achieve this small fortune - but a child who already gets $50 pocket-money per week is unlikely to find it motivating at all.
Similarly a child who regularly scores in the 50 - 55% range may be very motivated by this, but the child whose score level is in the low 40's may just dismiss it as being rediculous.
So the first point is that 'motivation' is internal. The second is that 'motivation' has two major elements, the second of which is seldom identified as such. I will call on my own life experience to clarify these.
The first is the individual's desire to achieve, succeed, and to please the parents.
As a normal, obedient, compliant child I was dominated by this first element through my schooling - for about two years.
I tried, I applied, I sweated and I fretted, I persevered and did everything I could to achieve and please. But as a bright UNDIAGNOSED DYSLEXIC child, I fell flat on my innocent 6 year-old face.
So, after two years the second major element of 'motivation' cut in. It finally dawned on me, that despite all my efforts, I was not able to achieve as planned, and that all my efforts amounted to wasted energy.
(This incidentally is the essence of 'depression').
Element two of 'motivation' (what I call 'shadow motivation') cuts in with the realisation that the expectations are unrealistic - the task is not achievable. It is simply 'self-preservation' based on avoidance of failure.
When 'success' was too difficult, irrespective of my desire and effort, I moved my emphasis to 'avoidance of failure'.
The actual techniques I used in this will be recognised by all of you, but I think it unlikely that you will have seen them as being a product of 'motivation'.
Before I go any further in this, I want to take you on a small detour and explain a little about the power of LABELLING.
The impact of labeling can be life-threatening - and we know it.
You are all familiar with the old adage "Give a dog a bad name......."
But if you think that this only applies to the weak, perhaps a bit of direct personal experience will help.
Let's divide this auditorium full of people into two halves - those of you on the right of the mid-line will use the positive label, and those of you on the left will use a negative label - and if you can prove me wrong in this I want to hear from you!
After this conference, when you get home to your partner, and you're lying in the double bed with the lights out, those of you on the right here, I want you to roll over to your partner and whisper in their waiting ear - "Honey, you are the most amazingly sensitive lover that I could ever imagine" - and see what happens.
Now those of you on the left side of the room, remember that you have the negative aspect to whisper in that ear.......
Suffice to say that people tend to become what you tell them they already are.
But let's go further.
In 1963 two University teachers played some simple mischief on their first-year psychology students. The students were doing experiments with rats, and the teachers simply said that all the rats from cage A. had been bred to be highly intelligent, and those from cage B. had been bred to be dull. In fact all the rats were the same.
At the end of the session they were stunned to find that the students with the supposedly 'intelligent' rats achieved high performances in the experiments, while those that were supposedly low intelligence generally performed lower. And nobody had told the rats!
Labeling had affected the expectations of the observers, and somehow the performance of the rats!
So Rosenthal and Jacobson went on to conduct an experiment that they would probably not get away with these days. They conducted what later came to be known as the PYGMALION EXPERIMENT.
They took 18 classes of primary-age children and ran a mock test of 'academic potential' - whilst actually just measuring the current achievement of each child to date.
They then randomly ascribed labels of 'high potential' and 'low potential' to the children, and gave this information to the next year's teacher at the beginning of the school year.
At the end of that next school year they reassessed each child, and measured the gains made. The achievements gains made over that 12 month period were frightenly aligned to the mock 'potential' labels given to the teachers, but not the children!
When we label somebody we stand to dramatically impact both on them, and the perception of others around them.
So lets come back to my experience as an undiagnosed dyslexic child in the NZ 1950's school environment.
But first, another small deviation; just quickly, a few insights into how the dyslexic brain ticks. (I will go into this more in my workshops).
1. - Most dyslexic people are of at least average intelligence - they are therefore 'seen' to be intelligent, but observed to underperform in class.
2. - Dyslexia involves a difficulty with language - and although I could hear what people said to me, and could even repeat those words back to them, I was not sure what those words meant.
3. - Having trouble with what words meant, I would often use the wrong words, and say things that I did not mean at all.
4. - Not only did I have trouble with spoken words, but I also did not have the capacity to use 'inner dialogue', or 'self-talk' - so couldn't formulate or ask questions, or process information using normal 'thinking'.
5. - Rather than thinking in words inside my head I processed information by thinking in pictures.
So, although I was seen to be intelligent, I wasn't producing the goods at school - and I earned my first label LAZY
I gave up on trying to perform and succeed, and now put my energy into avoiding failure. To do this I memorised information, and copied others work.
Thus I earned my second label CHEAT.
I couldn't understand the teacher's instruction - so my third and fourth labels were NOT LISTENING and NOT PAYING ATTENTION.
Without 'inner dialogue' I couldn't formulate questions, nor compare, contrast, extrapolate, nor process information, and this was the source of labels five and six WILL NOT APPLY HIMSELF and NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH.
Because I couldn't find the right words, and often used the wrong words, my subsequent label was STUPID and one teacher used to beat me over the head with a maths book whilst proclaiming to the class "King you are stupid!"
My picture-orientated brain got me into constant trouble with instructions like 'No splashing', 'No diving', and 'No running around the pool', and the labels came flying DISOBEDIENT. WILLFUL. BEHAVIOUR PROBLEM. and NAUGHTY LITTLE BOY.
A question for you; what happens when you take an intelligent, deeply sensitive, highly motivated, and confused child, and give them all these labels?
The obvious answer is that you create ANXIETY and STRESS. and this doesn't help.
The tummy aches that sent me running to the sick-bay (imaginary, they said), are still with me today as stomach ulcers, but earned me yet another label AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOUR.
And so as the years went on, so did the labeling, and so also the sadness, the lonliness and the depression - eventually leading to huge anger and intermittent suicidal behaviour.
But there was one spark of hope.
Another common characteristic of Dyslexic people is that we have a heightened spiritual sensitivity - and one day my God said to me,
"Here, hold my hand - together we can achieve anything"
and at that point I dedicated my life to working with other kids in the same predicament.
So, finally, in defence of myself, a long history of being told that I am not good enough, and multiple thousands of other similar children, I want to emphatically state,
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ‘A NAUGHTY LITTLE BOY’.
I explore these issues in detail in my three books, and will do so in my workshops tomorrow.