August 12, 2006

There’s a reader comment on Ran Prieur at the moment about well meaning parents who glue their kids train sets together, destroying any creative learning opportunity and probably the very reason to have the train set.

No doubt the parents think they have created the perfect configuration for their child but really this is completely bonkers, except…

Except I have this same urge myself (not to glue train sets together, but certainly to micromanage my kid’s activities), probably the difference between me and them is that I have certain ideals for my children AND I occasionally reflect on my actions. This means I don’t do stuff that is as mad as that but I still do attempt to apply too much control. My first reaction when our oldest child asks to do something is often ‘no’. Moments later I realise that I have no good reason for saying this and (confusingly no doubt) change my mind.

I’m trying to figure why I do this. I know that the need for control is caused by fear, but what do I fear? A dirty floor? A wet item of clothing?

Why would I fear things like that? I don’t if I think about it but there is something deeper there. I fear that things will go wrong, that my kids will ‘get it wrong’. When I got it wrong as a child the consequences were mostly negative and I want to protect my kids from ‘getting in trouble’. Again, if I think about it I don’t fear this but the instinctive reaction is clearly very strong.

I went to school so my childhood experience taught me over and over again that ‘getting it wrong’ is to be avoided, in fact MUST be avoided. I remember adults telling us in wise tones that we should learn from our mistakes which I found very confusing because I knew that mistakes led to being shouted at or being seriously talked at or to the stigma of failure or to embarrassment and humiliation. Do that to someone for their entire childhood and you’ll induce a kneejerk reaction that can never be done away with.

Even worse my father was a teacher, trained in the ways of the system and I got mistake therapy at home too. Worse still, he was a head teacher and even worse he was a really good one. He thought he was providing a secure environment by relentlessly enforcing rules but what he was also doing was teaching the underlying values of the system.

I was such a good boy. I got really good grades, I never did anything wrong and I never tried anything new for fear of not being an instant sucess. It’s taken until my 30’s to gain awareness of this but I am forced to operate at an intellectual level all day since my instinctive reactions are so very appalling.

There’s more though. The book Disciplined Minds (which I review here) explains how the main role of the university system is to teach students to internalise the value system of their ‘owner/employer’. This is required by the system because professionals don’t simply follow orders, they have to make judgement decisions and the elites of society want total confidence that they will be make the right choices.

It’s a superb book and I highly recommend it but right now I want to extend the author’s thesis to the entirety of our society. To lesser degrees we are taught this same lesson in other areas – from parents, or school, or employers, even the school bully. Again I return to my father. What makes it clear to me that I internalised his value system is that I was completely unable to enjoy rock music if he were both in the same room together. My Dad has appalling taste in music, preferring the country music and easy listening part of the spectrum, this didn’t leave much room for the preferences of his teenage sons. I always found it amazing that I could have such differing reactions to the same song but the concept of internalising your superior’s values certainly explains it. Amusingly my brother knew Dad’s taste too but tended to respond by playing the music even louder if he was around rather than turning it down like I would.

What seems clear is that virtually every aspect of our controlling and hierarchical society is self reinforcing. It selects for behaviours that don’t just serve the system but act to reinforce the main lessons as well. It’s so pervasive and inescapable that parents end up gluing their kids trains sets together and creating offspring who are even better servants of empire than they were.

If anyone has a theory as to why a small percentage of us have been able to escape this cycle I’d love to hear it because when I write it like that the system just seems so incredibly unstoppable – although I do appreciate that it’s strength is also it’s weakness in that it selects for people who are in all other area of their life incompetent.


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