Studies have shown that, particularly in times of stress, we tend to revert to our past experience as our script. We teach as we were taught, we parent as we were parented. We may know better than the teachers we had, or we may want more for our own kids than we were given, but when the pressure is on we follow the script we learned from watching others. For some of us, with fortunate experiences and good role models, this truth is a blessing. For those with a less desirable childhood it can be a curse.
I was working with a group of teachers recently when a woman shared something that made me both sad and amazed. We had been talking about our own experiences being disciplined as children and she alluded to the fact that her father had often crossed the line into abuse. Decades later, the backs of her legs still bore scars where they had been accosted with switches and belts.
As a mother, this woman swore that she would never allow such treatment to befall her own children. She hung a belt from a nail next to her front door as a reminder of the trauma caused by unbridled anger. She kept her promise to herself and to her children. She mentioned however, that her sister did not have the same response to the experience that she had. In fact, on one occasion her sister was visiting her home with her own children and noticed the belt hanging by the door. Her response: “Oh, good, you have one! I forgot to bring mine!”
What made the difference between the two sisters – one working from the script of her own parent, the other rewriting her reality?
It may be common human disposition to respond to challenging situations by drawing upon our experience and following in the same path as our predecessors, but having a disposition is not the same as having a destiny. We can change and break the cycle. But change is hard. Following our disposition means going with the flow, while change means swimming upstream.
Alan Deutschman wrote a fascinating book about change – why it’s so hard, and what makes some attempts at change fail while others succeed – called, Change or Die. Among many other intriguing principles, Deutschman points out three keys to real change: Relate, Repeat, Reframe.
Change requires having a relatable role model, mentor, or community. As a student teacher, I found that when I felt like I needed to do better, I would sometimes actually imagine I was my cooperating teacher. I would respond as she would respond until I could take those strong skills and put my own personal stamp on them. I do the same as a mother. Sometimes I visualize my “mommy mentors” and try to bring myself up to par. Having positive role models gives us a reference point. Having a strong relationship with these mentors gives us the chance to discuss our struggles, get support, and find reinforcement when we are tempted to slide into the course of least resistance.
Any good behavior requires repetition to become a good habit. Whether you’re working on finding more opportunities to positively encourage your children or developing a better coping mechanism when you’ve lost your cool, these changes won’t come without time and practice. So have patience with yourself. Reinforce your goals with visual reminders, mental affirmations, or by regularly reading on the topic. If you spent an entire childhood experiencing and observing shouting as a means of responding to misbehavior, it will take time and repetition to shift your natural reaction.
Change in behavior requires a change in perspective. When we learn to see things differently, we begin to respond differently. We may need to reframe our perspective of child behavior, recognizing the learning that must take place for proper behavior and the mistakes that will inevitably come along the way. We may need to shift our focus from punishment to guidance, or reframe our expectations to better fit the developmental capacity of the children we love and teach.
A Change for the Better
The woman I mentioned earlier didn’t read Deutschman’s book but was fortunate enough to find these three keys changing her life. She was able to relate to other positive role models in her life and repeatedly affirmed her commitment to her own children and those she worked with, used the belt as a visual reminder, and also reinforced her decision with continual professional development in the field of child care and education. She had reframed her experience, recognizing her father’s unacceptable behavior for what it was and choosing to see her role as a parent, teacher, and administrator in a more positive, loving, and responsive way.
Thankfully, not all of us have to overcome a past of abuse and drastically rewrite our scripts. But each one of us does need to be conscious of what our scripts are, and deliberate in choosing whether to keep them or change them. Feelings about discipline, hair-trigger responses to specific behaviors, our views of our roles as parents and teachers- all can have their roots in our own childhood experiences.
You can’t choose your childhood, but you can choose your future. So spend some time evaluating your script for teaching and parenting. What aspects are you grateful for, and what needs to change? Change takes time and effort, but the keys of change can open the door to a more intentional life.
Top photo by Carin.
Center photo by dkmhl.