Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Impulsiveness and "evil"

This is a far more provocative subject than those I often write about. But I feel compelled. I was with someone the other day who felt that her nephew as irredeemably evil. He hurtful, mean, rude things to others all the time. Are there people who are innately evil? Are there children who are hopeless causes because they will not learn to behave in socially appropriate ways? From my experience, the answer is No.

First, I don't want in any way to make this all about "environment" meaning that children are a reflection of what they have been taught, or what has been modeled. Though there is truth here, we can too quickly get into a place of blaming parents and caregivers. This is not a blame game. This doesn't help children and society as a whole at all. The social and emotional climate of a child's upbringing is only one piece of the puzzle.

And this is also not solely about genetics. Our genes are a powerful influence on who we are and what we become. But life and family members and experiences all go into the mix and can mediate with genes. Most young children are impulsive by nature. They are curious and some will go to any lengths to try something new out. A three year old child may even pinch a baby sister or brother really hard or put a kitten into a bucket of water to see what happens. Rarely is this done to really hurt the baby or animal. This very young child is not hopelessly evil. Young toddlers and preschoolers do not have the ability to logically understand another's feelings or the consequence of their behaviors in nearly the sophisticated way that they will a few years later when they are school aged. And certainly having a moral conscience is something that is taught.

We can ask a very young child, what's the rule about..... whatever. And because they have heard this from us, they often can parrot back a simple correct response. But in the moment, they forget. They are not thinking fully when they let their curiosity or excitement get the better of them, and they do something that seems hurtful or mean. That is exactly the time when they need a reminder. They need to hear that that behavior is unacceptable, it is not kind and respectful. And they need to be directed to appropriate activities. Just saying "no" or "stop" is often not enough to sidetrack them.

Some adults will say, "well, he knows better." And they are right. But knowing better and always making the right choice in the moment are two very different things. Even we adults do things that "in our right minds" we know there are better, more healthy, more kind responses. We over eat. We drink too much. We stay up too late. We forget to make that appointment for the dentist. We react to someone on the road, and cut them off. There are many, many examples. This does not mean we are innately unteachable people. Children need us to remember that we can act thoughtlessly, too. And we can learn to be more aware, moment by moment, and ask ourselves, "what would be the kind thing for me to do right now?" And then we act the same way toward children.

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