So, I recently had a revelation. This revelation came about from observing my youngest son, Owen, throughout his third year of life (also known as "the terrible twos"). If Owen found a piece of paper, he ripped it up. If he saw a stack of blocks, he knocked it down. If he had something he could throw, he threw it. I was at a loss to understand why it seemed like he wanted to destroy everything he touched. It was disconcerting. Beyond the fact that it made each day a struggle, it made me think that perhaps a need to destroy is somehow inborn in some humans and perhaps this is why we have so much war and suffering in the world. Through some reading and research and some careful observations, I now understand that Owen's need was for power and control over his world, which is not at all the same thing as a need to destroy.
I now also realize this was the same need he was displaying by screaming and trying to get away when I changed his diaper, dressed him, or buckled him into his carseat. All he ever wanted was control over his own body, as well as that of the world surrounding him. Don't we all?
So, back to the revelation. I am sure this is not a new idea, but it goes something like this:
It is human nature to crave power. We all, from the time we are babies, feel the need to exert control over our environment. I believe that when people are denied the opportunity to create and be productive, they will become destructive instead. If a person feels like he has no control over his life, or if he can't see the fruits of his labor, he will find a way to make a mark on his world that is visible to himself, often in a way that hurts himself or others.
I started this post before the tragic bombings in Boston occurred, but as I have listened to experts speak about the people who commit these kinds of terrorist acts, my ideas have been reinforced. They say that these people are almost always young men who feel like their life does not have a purpose. They become radicalized because it suddenly gives meaning to their life. They feel like they can do something to make a change in the world. Don't we all want to feel as if we are making a difference? I know very little about the childhood that these two young men had, but I'd be willing to bet that independence, confidence, and creative expression were not strongly fostered.
I should note that this violent expression of which I speak is predominantly a male characteristic. However, we all feel the same basic need for control in our lives. I think that in females, and some males, these feelings of helplessness are often translated into either self-destructive or personalities that seek to manipulate and control others both physically and emotionally, but not necessarily through violent means. These non-violent forms, however, are just as much of a hindrance to a peaceful world as the violent ones.
When a toddler sees that he can break something and cause both a physical change in the object and illicit an emotional response from his parent, he sees that he can have control over his world. When an adult beats, rapes, or kills, it is the same. He feels powerful and in control. He can change the world around him. He can illicit responses from other people.
I am making a comparison here, but of course a toddler's behavior should not be viewed in the same light as an adult's. They may have the same root cause, but adults can understand the pain they are inflicting on others, while a young child cannot. The child is experimenting and learning. In fact, this behavior in a toddler is normal and healthy. He is learning how his actions affect other people and the world around him. It is much more difficult to change patterns of behavior in an adult. That is why it is so important to address this behavior at a young age. Children need to channel these feelings in a productive way. So, how do we do this?
It is my hypothesis that if every child were given the opportunity to create and be productive, there would be significantly less violence in the world. To be creative and productive, one first needs to feel confident in one's own abilities. To feel confident in his own abilities, a child simply must have some control over his own life. There are some simple ways we can help children achieve this. One is by giving them age-appropriate choices and responsibilities. It is important not to exert too much control over your children, but instead to teach them self-control. When they see that they have some say in their lives, and that their contributions to the family are appreciated and even needed, it builds self-esteem and confidence.
I am currently trying to do this with this with my 6 year old son. I decided recently that I am too controlling in some ways. To the obsever, it may not seem like it, since I am not strict or punitive, but I realized recently that I am constantly telling him what to do and when (which can turn into a power struggle - I get tired of telling him 5 times to do something), and I also make a lot of decisions for him - decisions he is now capable of making himself. This was fine when he was younger, but he is getting to an age now where he needs to start learning self-discipline, time management, etc. To help him gain more independence, we started with a wall chart that helps him remember what time and order to do things to get ready on time in the mornings. He now often is dressed and has any uncompleted homework done before I even get up. (He is an early riser.) I also got him a watch, so that he can begin to learn to check it and do things when he is supposed to. For example, he starts homework at 5:00. I would like to get to the point soon where I don't have to tell him to go start his homework, but he sees that it is 5:00 and goes to start on his own. This may take some time, but when achieved, I hope it will give him a sense of being in control and will hopefully eliminate the arguing we sometimes have over starting homework. We are already to the point where all I say is , "It's 5:00," and he knows what that means. I expect he will need reminders for this and many other responsibilities for some time to come, but eventually he will be able to accomplish them independently.
Additionally, I asked him if he would like to start picking out his own clothes each day. I used to let him do this in the pre-school years, but he eventually stopped caring about what he wore, so I just started laying clothes out for him. This was fine for awhile, but I think adding this simple choice to his days will help with his confidence level, as well. To make this easier, I went through his clothes and picked out 6 or 7 matching outfits and clothes-pinned the 2 hangers together. We check the weather together the night before, and he selects an outfit from the closet. I also think it is important for children to have household responsibilities. Aiden's responsibilities include setting the table for dinner, helping to clear the table afterward, and cleaning up his own messes. These responsibilities will gradually expand as he gets older, and my hope is that he will feel competent, independent, and like an important part of the family.
I also believe that children need to be able create and express themselves through the arts and through self-directed play. Young children should be given ample time for self-directed imaginative play and exploration of art materials.
With Owen, I found that if he kept busy, his behavior was much more manageable. If I made sure that he had time to run, jump, and climb outdoors during the day, he seemed to have less of a need to throw things, knock things down, etc. when we were together indoors in the evening. I have also found it helpful to greatly limit the amount of TV he watches and make sure he is doing more active things like playing with play-doh, blocks, hammering, drumming, painting, cutting with safety scissors, etc. These are all things that give him visual, audio, or tactile feedback that let him know he is creating, changing, or somehow manipulating his environment.
Older children should be given the opportunity to experiment with a variety of visual and performing arts. I believe every child should experience drama, music, dance, painting, sculpture, and crafts such as handwork or woodworking. With ample opportunities, I believe all children will find an area that they enjoy and/or one that they are good at. When a child sees that he can create something beautiful, useful, or original, something that gives pleasure to others or himself, it only adds to his feelings of confidence and control.
I think it is important to mention that, while there are times when we simply have to make our children listen through force (either physical force or through threats of punishment or actual punishment) for safety or other practical reasons, I believe this type of discipline should be used as little as possible. Every time I have had to physically force Owen into his car seat, or hold him down to get him dressed or undressed, I felt like I was breaking his spirit. I know he feels helpless when he is forced into submission, and the last thing I want to foster in my own child is helplessness.
These are certainly not new ideas. Many parents, myself included, use them with their children in the simple hopes of producing happy, productive adults. However, I don't believe our culture as a whole values the importance of these ideas in helping to create a more peaceful world. I believe that these two simple overlapping concepts of feeling in control and creating something worthwhile could greatly reduce the amount of violence in the world. Of course, for every child to be given these opportunities, there are many things that need to happen. Parents must be educated, schools must be funded, and so on. That is a discussion for another day.
Thank you for reading and please feel free to comment. I don't often get a chance to have in-depth adult conversations, so I value your feedback!