Thursday, 4 February 2010

Right and wrong

Last month, there was an upsetting and disturbing court case in the UK. Two young brothers of ten and eleven, were found guilty of attacking a couple of younger boys, who appear fortunate not to have died from their injuries. The details of the case make for difficult reading, with beatings, torture and sexual acts, being part of the attack.

I would like to state straight away that I fully support the sentencing of these children and the need for them to stay in a secure place of safety for many years to come. I am not a 'do gooder', but nor am I a member of the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' brigade. There are no excuses, but there are reasons. We give away control of our behaviour with excuses, but once we understand the reasons, we can take control and change.

What does interest me though, is the difference between knowing right from wrong and understanding that all actions have consequenses. The ripple effect. In most cases, if we make an action, then we should take responsibility for doing it and not blame others. But many adults can have major problems with that one. "My friend/wife/husband made me get drunk last night" is a classic version of the childish, "they made me do it." And how many adults blame people who are dead or gone out of their lives, for some behaviour in the present day? Out of emotionally immature brains will come,"It's not my fault" and a blaming of someone/something else. Some of our politicians and sporting heroes don't help as role models.

After the court case, the usual comments were made by adults, that at the age of ten and eleven, the boys should know right from wrong. That is true. But what children don't have a full comprehension of, is that all actions have consequenses. They may hear those words, but their immature, emotional brains are unable to interpret them meaningfully. An understanding comes with a maturing brain. Aged eleven, I knew that shoplifting was very wrong, but it didn't stop me from doing it for seven years.

Many people appear to have a lack of knowledge of the difference between 'right and wrong' and 'action and consequenses'. As a result, an adult's expectations of a child's behaviour can sometimes be unrealistic, while they also make mistakes themselves. eg: "Oh, I never thought that would happen."

The boys were sentenced to "an indeterminate sentence, with a minimum of five years to be served." There isn't a hope in hell of the boys being released in 2015, it was legal language. But, of course, the media went to town on the 'five years', stoking up fear in people by presenting images of a future when two disturbed teenagers would be let loose amongst the population. While it was perfectly natural for the victims' parents to be emotional, other emotionally aroused members of society were sought for their opinions, to be aired on TV, radio, internet and the newspapers. There was much emoting about the evilness of the children.

Were these boys born evil? It's the old nature versus nuture debate. While there were mentions of the negative parenting they had experienced, the parents themselves have not been punished, as yet. It was reported that the boys are part of a large family, where the father is an alcoholic and regularly assaulted the mother in front of the boys. The boys had watched adult, violent and sexually graphic films. They drank cider and smoked cannabis. The mother said that she wasn't to blame.

With the parental history, these two boys may have been born with fetal brain damage, we shall never know. Certainly alcohol and cannabis are mind altering substances, which can have damaging and long lasting effects on adults, let alone the developing brain of a young child. The children not only saw violence in their own home, but saw it on the TV too. It was normal behaviour to them. Most children will grow up in homes believing for a time, that their own environment is normal and universal, whatever happens in it. Copying behaviour used at home is not unusual.

To the people who think that seeing disturbing/unsuitable images doesn't affect the developing brain, could I point to the power of advertising. Billions are spent on advertising. Because it works at altering thoughts and behaviours.

Parents are flawed human beings, I don't know of anyone who is perfect (that's another topic) and my children will remind me that sometimes they were brought up with the "do as I say, not do as I do" approach. But I believe as adults, we do have personal responsibility for our actions and it's something we have to teach our children. We should try to lead by example, if we want our children to learn. Not easy, especially when we are stressed, unwell, worried and/or unhappy. Perhaps we don't even know how, due to our own upbringing? Unchangeable excuses or changeable reasons?

If, as adults, we show children that we blame others for our actions and that it's okay for adults to behave in ways that children shouldn't, what signals are they picking up?

It can amuse (and upset) a parent, to see their young child develop habits they have picked up from a primary carer, such as sitting/walking/eating in a certain way or repeating a well used phrase. I recall a two year old child in my toddler group twenty years ago, playing shops. When I had filled his bag with goodies, I asked for some money. He said, "Do you take a credit card?"

So why should there be surprise when a child copies less desirable behaviour? In one of the 'child rearing' TV programmes, a toddler was running around the house 'effing' at her parents. The dad was slouching in his chair trying to do his best, but shouting, " How many times have I told you, will you f..king stop using that word." How many parents do you hear shouting, "Will you stop shouting at me!" No wonder children receive mixed messages. Yes, of course, I am as guilty as the next person.

At a very early stage of development, a child will begin to understand that some things they do are 'right and good and some are 'wrong and bad'. They will also associate certain words and actions with these 'right/good' or 'wrong/bad' behaviours. If a 'wrong/bad' behaviour is given attention, then it can hardly be surprising that the child may repeat it, if it is attention that they want and need. They may be learning early on to accept the pain, in order to get the pleasure. (Another future blog topic.)

But do young, immature brains really understand the consequenses of their actions, especially if threatened consequenses don't come to fruition? eg: Seen and heard in every high street, every day. "If you carry on doing..., such and such will happen to you." A child can quickly work out that the person never carries out the threatened consequenses. I admit that sometimes, I have to seriously control myself from speaking out, when I hear obvious idle threats, especially if the threat is something ludicrous or the boundaries keep moving as the threats are repeated.

That's why it can be successful with children, to only suggest consequenses that can actually be carried out, and preferably in the next few hours. Most importantly, the consequenses must be carried out for credibility to be maintained. Adults know that too, for instance, with motoring offences.

I was a 'naughty girl'. It says so in my school report and I was continually being told off. I don't think there was a classroom I didn't stand outside from the age of four to sixteen. Detentions served no useful purpose at all. They certainly weren't a deterrent. My mother's wroth might have been, but I learnt to forge her signature. I learnt to lie well too.

I certainly knew right from wrong, but sometimes didn't really understand why something was wrong. As I grew up, I also developed a 'so what' attitude, as I couldn't seem to do much right at times. I grew up with a sense of injustice, at what didn't seem fair. That turned into a double-edged sword. Many of my adult activities have been motivated in a helpful way by that sense of injustice, but the 'mini me' aged about ten years old, saying "it's not fair", has hijacked me on too many occasions to be useful. She will still attempt to get me to listen to her at times, though I'm feeling more grown up these days and tell her to "shut up and go away!".

So when did things change for me and how? Little by little and only when I could see the possible results of my actions and take personal responsibility for them. It's what I call the 'penny dropping moment'. Some call it 'a lightbulb moment', when suddenly the possible consequenses reveal themselves in all their glory. Unfortunately it doesn't happen all at once on one day, when we're fourteen. I wish it did. Emotional maturity is little different from physical maturity in that respect.

Being emotionally aroused gives us tunnel vision and we are unable to think/hear/see straight. Seeing consequenses depends on our ability to think further that the moment we find ourselves in. Being in a state of lowered emotional arousal is crucial to effective thinking.

Personally, some unhelpful behaviours, such as drug taking, I never even started. The first time I was offered drugs and despite being a rebellious teenager, I remember 'seeing' an uncertain future and declined. A miracle as far as I'm concerned. But teenage shoplifting went on until a day when I was eighteen and waiting for a shop keeper to move away from the counter. Suddenly a picture of a future of being chucked out of college and not doing the work I wanted to do, loomed up in my head and I never shoplifted again. Drinking too much went on into middle age and so on, with other behaviours.

In some local authorities, there is a crime/victim scheme, where the convicted person visits the victim to understand the results of their actions. I fully support this scheme. Although some criminals may not care about their victims, most have behaved on the spur of the moment, giving no thought at all to the effects arising from their actions. When faced in calmer circumstances, with the victim telling them how the crime has affected and is still affecting them and others, it can be a revelation. "I never realised..." No, you didn't.

My thoughts are that the young boys in Yorkshire may have known what they were doing was wrong, but through their learnt behaviour, they probably thought it was normal and would have been unable to think through of the consequenses of their actions. They were certainly only 'living in the moment'.

I am tempted to say, 'It wasn't their fault" and excuse their actions by blaming the dysfunctional upbringing they experienced. But then there is always the question, "why doesn't everyone bought up in a family like that, behave in the same way?" Back to nature versus nurture? The subject of trauma damaged thinking will have to wait.


Tuesday, 19 January 2010


Is it really that many weeks since I last wrote a blog? Not in my plan at all. In fact I see there are two incomplete drafts, that could do with my attention. I started them before Christmas.

I really enjoy writing the blog and think up at least one subject a day. So what stops me writing it? In fact what stops me doing all sorts? I'm certainly easily distracted and...

...and there's a case in point. I wrote the previous paragraph 90 minutes ago. I have hardly moved out of my chair, but have managed to find other things to do. Help! I've just got up to put the kettle on. The umpteenth break. Now this has got to stop. But what is causing this behaviour and where is its roots? Can I use my own learnings to find out the cause and thus find a solution.

A couple of years ago, I was at a demonstration of techniques to reduce emotional arousal. The speaker asked for someone in the audience who procrastinated. My hand shot up all too readily.

It was hardly surprising that my memories of procrastinating went back a long way, deep into childhood. The conversation took me back into some connecting childhood experiences but my emotional arousal levels hardly rose. Whatever it was, didn't bother me that much. I was able to re-tell the memories as stories and not re-live them. The latter being one of the signs of troubling , if not traumatic memories.

In the end, I uncovered some feeling of anger at writing thank-you letters after Christmas. These had to be perfect and I had to re-write them many times. So it was decided at the demonstration, that my procrastination was down to not wanting to finish anything because it wouldn't be perfect. But I have fortunately, very rarely been bothered at all about something not being 'perfect', so I didn't think it was that. Everyone was satisfied at the outcome of the demonstration. But while the process had been of interest, I knew that it hadn't really uncovered anything new and was unlikely to change the habits of a lifetime. It didn't.

It has always been a family joke, that I have "the attention span of a flea". In many ways, it hasn't been a hindrance, in that I am adaptable and also tend to be quite observant in whatever surroundings I may be in. For those reasons alone, I have no doubt that I don't want to lose those resources and so unconsciously will not allow any change to occur. I can also convince myself that if I leave things to the last minute, I will be more productive in the end. A dubious justification.

But there are other times, when not completing tasks or leaving jobs to the last minute has been a pain and I probably, no, definitely, could have been more successful in various ventures through my life.

But I've got some good excuses haven't I?

1. I'm a Gemini for starters. Well, that's it then. Geminis have 'butterfly minds'. Really? All them? It reminds me of the friend who told me that she had grown up a nervous wreck because her sisters had teased her in childhood, saying she was "Wednesday's child and full of woe". I asked her whether she thought everyone born on a Wednesday was full of anxiety and whether her sisters' characters were true to their birth days of the week? She hadn't given either possibility a thought and had held on to that one unhelpful, childhoood belief all 40 years of her adult life. A great shame.

2. Another excuse is that I has a head injury when I was a toddler. I ran into an iron girder and caused a dent in my skull. Well, there you are. Damage to my frontal cortex. Just think, I could have been an grade 'A' student, but for that accident. Unlikely.

3. Yet another excuse, is that I was just born like this. It's as part of my personal make-up as my height and eye colour are. I can't change it.

4. I'm a woman. Women multi-task.

So, there are some of my excuses and there's nothing I can do about them. "It's not my fault". Whoopee! I can carry on in the same old ways, because it's not my fault.

Wrong! They may possible reasons, but they should not be used as excuses. As an adult, I could take responsibility for my shortcomings and learn how to adapt. After all, isn't adapaptability one of my resources?

I have learnt managing strategies over the years. Do I use the carrot or stick motivational methods? The carrot is what works for me. But while I know what works, I don't always put it into practice. I hear my internal diologue shout, "Can't be bothered", "Why should I?" Neither are expressions used by emotionally mature adults.

If I break up tasks into small pieces of time, I'm hugely more productive. Whether it's a work or domestic task. (Parkinson's Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.) The stick of self regret and verbal abuse doesn't work. What does work for me, is the carrot of another small piece of time waiting for me with a treat. Could be a coffee, reading a newspaper/magazine, making a personal call/text, social networking, going shopping etc:

My conclusion is that there certainly are reasons why I have a butterfly mind, but there are no excuses. My impulsiveness to switch from one thing to another is based on an emotional immaturity and I can change that by stopping myself. As a client one said to a colleague," Wow! I know now that I can't ever stop the first thought, but I have the choice to change the second". It was a powerful insight for that person.

The saying goes, 'Proscrastination is the the thief of time', as if it is a negative force. But I don't ever feel that the things I do are a waste of time, just that I perhaps need to prioritise a little better.

So, four days, yes, four days later, I have reached the end. Some interruptions have been necessary/urgent, some have not.

The mini me whispering in my ear, "I want it and want it now!" will have to 'grow up' and use some of her more adult, working practices. Will it work?

You will know if you see more regular blogging. But not yet, I'm off to get my treat of reading the morning newspaper.