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Some Thoughts on Negative Examples

Some Thoughts on Negative Examples

One of the books Bella found in my OB’s waiting room that she insisted I read to her was one of those overly-didactic lessons on disobedience. A litlte girl sneaks cookies from the jar and is reprimanded by her father for ruining her dinner. She chases a ball into the street, burns her finger on the stove, refuses to pick up her toys, bristles at her parents for being arbitrary, mean unfair. The intention of the book was to show children that adults have reasons for their rules and decrees, that they aren’t arbitrary but are meant for the child’s own good. But I wonder if this lesson wouldn’t be better pitched at mom and dad rather than in the form of a children’s story.

Now Dom and I had just had a series of conversations about how often attempts to discourage people from certain behaviors only leads them to consider things they’d otherwise never have thought of doing. He’d read something about a study done at Petrified National Forest about how signs telling people not to pick up the petrified wood actually led to more incidents of theft than having no signs at all. People tend to be drawn to doing what other people are doing, or what they imagine other people are doing. The worst incidences of people stealing wood were with signs that gave statistics about how many people do so in a year and that included photos of people taking bits of petrified wood.

So here I was confronted with a book that did exactly that. It gave many examples of a child being disobedient. how could I read this to Isabella who is only very rarely disobedient. And when she does disobey me or ignore my requests it’s over incidents that were not included in the book’s examples. And it’s less outright disobedience than just having trouble making transitions from one activity to another. In other words the only way this book might possibly influence her was in a negative way, to consider behaviors that were otherwise foreign to her. I tried to make up other stories about the pictures and then distract her attention towards another book.

I wonder how many children get scared of monsters in the closet or under the bed because of stories meant to reassure them about a fear they never had in the first place? I know my only great fears as a child—something under the bed waiting to grab my ankles, a man who would sneak into my room and cut my throat if the sheets weren’t pulled up to my chin, a skeletal hand reaching out of the toilet—were always suggested to me by other children. I don’t think I had a single fear that came from my own imagination.

I also wonder about things like ad campaigns meant to keep kids away from drugs etc. Are they really just suggesting to the kids the idea that there really are a bunch of people their own age doing it already so it’s not such a big deal?

And Dom mentioned the witness talks so popular in youth ministry. The devout Catholic who took some wrong turns and got into drugs or vice, who had lived the high life or the fast life and then reformed. Might this not just plant the seed that you don’t really have to work so hard at being good in college and as a young adult, there’s always time to sow your wild oats now and then you can reform, confess and be a great Christian later?

I think it’s important to really think about the examples we set out for our children’s consideration. Are we discouraging behaviors we’ve already noticed they have or are we trying to anticipate problems that may never be problems for this specific child and unintentionally planting seed that will be that much harder to uproot?

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