This morning some time before dawn, my Littlest climbed into bed with me. He lay his head besides mine on the pillow and then sat back up and kissed my forehead, then snuggled up against me and fell asleep. A few hours later he woke up and bounded out of my bedroom. Just before the door clicked shut, he turned and came back to me. Stretching on his toes, he kissed my uncovered cheek and then ran from the room. This is who he is. The sweet and affectionate soul bounding through life with only a few thoughts…there are people he loves and places he wants to be with those people. Someday he and his world will expand. But for now, today, that is my littlest angel bestowing kisses.
Traveling with my kids reminded me how wonderful they are. No fewer than eight separate people stopped me to compliment me on my children’s behavior. Waiters, business men, fellow boaters, people on the plane…over and over I have been complimented on how polite my children are. I always thank the person and pass the credit along to my children because the credit isn’t mine. It is my children who behave this way. Mister Soandso and I parent them in ways that facilitate polite behavior, but it is my children who choose to act this way. And, of course, they don’t act so wonderfully all the time. Just like everybody else, they encompass the full spectrum of feelings and behaviors and act upon them. But they do tend to act quite appropriately in public. It is just the way they are.
They are good kids because that’s the kind of kids they are.
Several things have coalesced in my world these past few days and the overriding effect is the reminder that some things just are the way they are. We may make small in-roads towards progress, but the reality of human nature is that we are the way we are.
For example, a story has gone viral about a little boy in Colorado who was pepper sprayed by responding police officers after becoming enraged in his classroom. I am not interested in arguing over the police officer’s reactions or the boy or the mother or anything else. What I want to respond to is this: I first read the story on a Facebook posting that had (at that time) 29 responses. The vast majority of those responses reflected the view that if the mother had spanked the boy more in his past, he would not be so out-of-control at this time. And here is what stirred in my heart: nature versus nurture.
None of us know the full story behind the boy’s behavior nor what the mother has or has not used to elicit good behavior from the boy in the past. Mention is made of using medication but, again, we don’t know the whole story. What I do know is that many people responding to that Facebook posting believe that corporal punishment is the solution to inappropriate behavior. My question is this: how many of us have broken the speed limit while driving even though we know it is “wrong” to do so and that we may be “punished” for the infraction? There are so many situations where the threat of punishment does not deter the behavior. Even more at the heart of the matter is the intrinsic belief that our rationale for behavior is valid whereas other’s may not be or that the situation validates the behavior. (I’m running late. I am a very careful driver. There’s never any traffic on this street anyway. Et cetera.) Even more importantly, too often our emotional state drives our behavior more than our thought process. So in the case of the boy, would knowing that he would be hit for his actions have caused him to stop those actions? I think not. I’m not even convinced that the possibility of a life-time of pepper spraying will impact this boy’s behavior.
The fact is, the threat of punishment is not what most effectively changes a person’s behavior. It is empathy. And while empathy can be taught, the natural disposition towards empathic behavior is just part of a person or it isn’t. We can increase the empathy that is there, but we cannot create what is missing. It is just how we are. I do not spank my children. Ever. I do, however, teach empathy nearly daily. Through my word and my deed, I try to show that compassion and empathy is the most effective way of behaving. And I’d like to think that my nurturing of my children’s natural empathy has helped make them into the people they are.
It is possible to nurture the good in people even when our nature suggests otherwise. But it is hard and takes great patience and time. It is far easier to walk away and say, “that’s just the way (s)he is.”
I hope that what is good and kind in each beating heart is stronger than the darkness that can fill our minds. I hope that what makes each pause in their journey long enough to remind another they are loved, leaves both strengthened by that love. And I hope each of us is able to evolve into a better version of our selves, fluttering into our forever.
And like a tiny butterfly, fluttering in the ever-changing winds, I leave you with these words by Carl Sagan, put to film by Joshua Sellers. Is there hope for us or is this just the way we are?