Thursday, February 1, 2018

Punishment versus Reward (revisited)

I consider myself fortunate to be living in a village with a population of around 150. The thing about village life is that it’s much easier to understand patterns of human behavior, because life is less cluttered than in a complex urban environment. You could say my village is a compact microcosm of the rest of the planet: what happens here, happens everywhere else, though on a much smaller scale.

My village is located between two rivers, amidst lush greenery surrounded by misty mountains. The air here is fresh and the water pure. Excellent fengshui, as the Chinese would say. In fact, life in this enchanting little village is as close to heaven on earth as it gets. Except that a few adolescent boys have been showing delinquent tendencies. Out of sheer boredom and an excess of energy, they break into houses and steal small items – foodstuff, watches, handphones, even toothpaste and cosmetics. Several times, after they made off with my belongings, I have caught them and ordered them to return whatever they took. Each time, the kids have been relieved that I didn’t appear too angry (since I didn’t hit them, as their fathers would invariably do). I usually sit them down and lecture them for an hour or so, after which I offer them hot drinks and, occasionally, some food. Every time this happens, they apologize and shake my hand, and everything is peaceful again - at least for a few months!

These teenaged wannabe criminals all have one thing in common: fierce fathers who never show their sons any affection, and hardly ever give them any attention - because they have far too many kids and can barely manage with their meagre earnings as daily paid laborers. Senseless acts of delinquency are a perverse form of protest. Their criminal behavior stems from an urge to express displeasure at what they experience as an unfair and unjust world.

Will Smith & his son Jaden at eight
All “wrongdoing” ultimately has its source in the communication gap between Father and Son. This is particularly true in any patriarchal society wherein God is perceived as the Father, and the Father is perceived as the State - at least in its manifestation as Punisher of Wrongdoers. I have long studied the social factors that influence young people to tread a criminal path. In almost every instance, the youthful malefactor is someone with above average intelligence and courage. When he sees that the Father does not embody the ideals everyone preaches but rarely practises, he loses faith in Goodness itself, and therefore opts to do “bad.” The Father who lacks compassion and empathy soon gets identified with Punishment. To avoid punishment, the kid becomes a compulsive liar. Dishonesty is acutely habit-forming and gets transmitted down the generations.

In a society where there is a great divide between public and private behavior – where politicians and businessmen only pay lip service to virtue – deceit and hypocrisy become a way of life. Kids may have little economic or political power, but we cannot assume they are stupid. They can see right through the grown-ups’ lies. Especially in recent years, when so many children are born with far greater potential intelligence than their parents and grandparents, they are certainly not going to behave like obedient little sheep.

So when I read in the newspapers about how the government intends to “beef up security” or “stiffen penalties” I feel like grabbing these “grown-ups” and yelling in their faces: “Look in the mirror instead of always blaming somebody else! Do you honestly believe the way to deal with the rising crime rate is to recruit more policemen? Have you asked yourself why there seems to be more and more crime? How about your own behavior? Is it really beyond reproach? What kind of values do YOU embody?"

Have you considered that paying more for a better grade of teachers - especially at the kindergarten and primary levels where ethical foundations are laid – may prove a great deal more meaningful than splurging on high-tech surveillance equipment? Nothing can replace the personal touch, the human warmth of an interpersonal relationship – be it between Father and Son, or Teacher and Pupil.

All work and no play not only makes Jack a dull boy, it can turn him into a rebel without a cause. Parents who work so hard “for the children’s future” may end up ruining their kids emotionally. All living things thrive on love, fresh air, and sunshine. This is scientifically true, not just a romantic notion. Even plants grow healthier and happier when they sense the gardener’s affection for them - what more our own children? Let’s get honest with ourselves first. Our kids will start being honest with us when we choose to reward, instead of punish, them for being themselves.

[First posted 26 December 2006]