No negative consequences

Some weeks ago, I’m on the phone with a friend in Canada who is infuriated about the boorish behaviour of a recent guest in his household.  He unloads on me. “It was particularly galling that this lady was no casual acquaintance; this was my cousin – a blood relative – and here is this woman being thoughtless, selfish, lazy – she wouldn’t even make up her bed – and generally being one of the most inconsiderate and irritating people imaginable.  I couldn’t believe it.  My wife’s reaction was ‘That’s young people today; they only think about themselves.’”

I know without asking that we are all very familiar with that take about the general decay in the behaviours of our present generation.  We hear, “Young people. What you expect?”  I’ve heard and seen that position in Cayman, here in Guyana, and recently on visits to Barbados and Toronto. Just this week, on a television news report about a mugging in a small town in the USA, the analysis went: “The problem is these young people today.”

Well, my take is that it’s not young people today, it’s parents today.  Somehow – ask the sociologist why – societies have come to take a benign view of human behaviour – certainly in families but also in communities generally. And while you can see the scientific action of entropy in that situation in today’s more sophisticated mankind, there is also the scientific action of every action having a reaction; in this case, the relaxation of strictures, as well as consequences, within families and the society at large, resulting in the behavioural change among the young.

To put it in concise terms, the breakdown in behaviour my Canadian friend is struggling with comes largely from our slowly but clearly moving away from the concept of negative consequences to negative acts.  Do the comparison in your own sphere. Go back 40 or even 30 years. Reflect on the parental response to wayward behaviour then – insolence; bad manners; disrespect of elders; etc – and compare it to how such things are treated today. Certainly, the behaviours that confront us now constitute a deterioration of what used to be, but a crucial factor in the change is the result of few negative consequences, or even none whatsoever, that attend such actions now.

As a young man, the notion of my being disrespectful, even marginally, to my parents, or my teachers, or even my elders, was not even on my radar; it never came up. And the reason it never came up was that I had learned, sometimes from a quick and firm intervention, or sometimes a stern lecture, or sometimes from just a particular look from the very senior folks, that my transgression would not be overlooked or excused.  There would consequences for me.

Even to a casual observer, a very significant change in mankind in the past 30 years or so has been that widely increased tolerance for aberrant behaviour everywhere people live, but particularly so in the ‘developed world,‘ with the result that acceptance creeps into the attitude to behaviours previously frowned upon or even previously condemned outright. We’ll have to go to the sociologist to explain the slide, because slide it is, but social behaviours now show countless examples of individuals showing they know that their negative behaviour will not draw punishment or even criticism.

A quick consideration of our own personal circles will reveal many examples of parents who have, in effect, watered down or even abandoned the notion of consequences for the persons in their care.  Understand I am not in favour of the previously almost stultifying behaviour of some parents to their children, but we have gone too far the other way.  Every aberrant behaviour is rationalized or excused or minimized, and, ironically, in this shift to a different attitude, the parents themselves are exhibiting, clear as day, the process of negative consequences for their actions; it is reflected big time in the poor behaviours of their children.

We have moved, or been moved, the psychologist will say, to a state where laxity takes over, and the worst news is that the rate of decay is getting worse. Many, indeed most, of the parents one encounters these days are in the category of what I call the “heh heh” crowd – the ones who excuse every poor choice by their offspring, and who, when confronted by it logically, respond with a shrug and an embarrassed “heh heh” laugh.  I remember standing by a woman at a school sports day function in Grand Cayman where her child, no more than six years old, was running into the field, throwing items, bumping into people, and generally being obnoxious. After several minutes of this, she turned to me in embarrassment. “I don’t know what to do with this child.” And then she gave me the shrug and the “heh heh.”

I didn’t know the lady well enough to say it, but it had clearly not occurred to her that the difficulty was of her own making – the consequence of her own lack of remedial action when it should have been applied early.  In societies at wide angle, and in the family at close-up, we are failing to consider this process underlying the good order of persons: they learn when there are no consequences for their actions as they do in the reverse – when consequences come to bear. It’s the same concept of the law being applied – consequences – and I would rather see parents be the ‘baddies‘ who deliver a strong reprimand or a nudge to halt behaviour early before it grows into really nasty stuff down the line.

Certainly, the youngsters deserve some blame in this, but they have clearly learned as they replicate the poor behaviour, or even ratchet it up, that they can get away with it; they have learned that there are no negative consequences. They’re not going to get grounded; Daddy is not going to restrict the cell phone; no punitive consequences will appear. They have learned that.

It’s why drivers go through red lights here routinely, or drive drunk.
It’s why people leave abandoned vehicles on the roadside – for months on end.

They’ve learned they can get away it. There are no negative consequences.


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