Browsing a gift shop the other day, I happened on a decorative plaque on which was inscribed a quote attributed to the late “power of positive thinking” guru Norman Vincent Peale: “Change your thinking, and you change your world.”
I thought hard about that for several hours and came to the conclusion that Peale was being redundant. A change of thinking doesn’t change THE world, and I’m reasonably certain that he wasn’t a humanist, so he really didn’t believe in the idea that each of us constructs our own, equally valid, reality. So I think he meant to say, “If you change your thinking, your entire worldview changes.” And when one’s worldview changes, his perceptions, priorities, values, and relationship to everything in the world changes as well. For those reasons, his behavior also changes. As such, people who know the individual in question can tell, even if they don’t know his worldview has changed, that there is “something different” about him, and they begin responding differently to him. His change of thinking, therefore, if it is valid and radical, changes other people’s behavior.
How does this relate to parenting? A number of years ago, I came to the realization that the problems today’s parents suffer with the behavior of their children is primarily a matter of faulty thinking on their part. A person living in or before the 1950s could not have ever imagined that just two generations later, parents would be having the sort of child-rearing problems today’s parents report. For example, there is every reason to believe that in the 1950s, it was the rare child who was “oppositional” or threw tantrums after his or her third birthday. And people who taught back then scratch their heads over this ADHD thing.
The reason for this is not that our ancestors used better discipline methods. It is that they thought differently than do today’s parents about children and their responsibilities toward them. The thinking in question gave rise to a certain parenting vernacular that included such things as “children should be seen and not heard,” “you’re acting too big for your britches,” and “I knew if I gave you enough rope, you’d hang yourself.” Today’s parents (by and large) don’t say these things to their children. They think differently than did their kids’ great-grandparents. They think high self-esteem is a good thing, for example, whereas their great-grandparents thought humility was the desirable trait. That difference in thinking results in different parenting behavior which results in different behavior from children. As parents have embraced dysfunctional ideas, the behavior of children has worsened. It’s as simple as that.
Most significantly, those great-grandparents understood that children need leadership from the significant adults in their lives. Today’s parents are trying to have “wonderful relationships” with their children. They don’t know that competent leadership eventually leads to very satisfactory relationship, but the attempt to have wonderful relationship shoots leadership in the foot.
Clever discipline methods based on behavior modification theory will not solve a problem that is, at root, a problem of thinking. When parents change their thinking in a functional direction, children sense that there is “something different” about them, and their behavior changes. This is not theory. I’ve been witness to this at a personal level and I’ve heard numerous parent testimonies to that effect.
I started with a quote from Norman Vincent Peale. I will end with a similar sentiment expressed by Bob Dylan: “Gonna change my way of thinkin’, get myself a different set of rules” ("Change My Way of Thinking," 1979). Peale and Dylan are talking about a change in one’s worldview; I’m talking about a change in one’s parent-view. Same difference.