When I’m tired and my kid is trying his best to set a world record for consecutive uses of the question “Why?” I find myself claiming in exasperation “Because I said so!” The words ring in my head, not in my voice but my dad’s. I remember that response all too well from childhood. I quickly learnt that it basically meant “For the love of god, shut the fuck up!” and if I’m honest that’s what it means when I say it now. So why do I say it? Why do I sound like my father when I swore I never would?
The truth is, it may not be up to me. I am a product of my upbringing and as such, I have been conditioned to respond in certain ways. If that all seems a bit Clockwork Orange, I’ve got some bad news for you. It is a bit Clockwork Orange. And you’re probably the same.
Psychologists call this ‘Classical Conditioning’. You’ve no doubt heard about Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with salivating dogs. In a nutshell, Pavlov noted that dogs salivate when they see their food, but over time they learn that the food is brought by a certain person. And soon they begin to salivate when they see that person, in anticipation of the food. If the person begins to ring bell when they bring the food the dog can be conditioned to salivate at the sound of the bell alone. The dog has learned an association between the bell and food and so now doesn’t need to see food to salivate. The dog’s behaviour has been changed through different associated stimuli.
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The themes explored in Anthony Burgess’ novel, and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, are the dark and disturbing extremes of conditioning. But the world functions on conditioning.
When you reward your child for getting to the toilet in time and not shitting their pants, you are producing in them a conditioned response. Using toilet good, shit in pants bad.
Now that’s a useful response to learn but you can’t pick the things that your child learns from you. If they’re bright enough to understand toilet training, they’re bright enough to understand what to say to shut someone up. They’re learning to read, and you’re teaching them to do things like bake, but they’re also picking up your irrational hatred of your sports team’s rivals.
Children hear what adults say but they can’t understand it in the same way. My son recently heard me complaining about someone to my partner. “You should tell them to fuck off,” he cheerfully said to me. He doesn’t understand what that means, he got the tone wrong but the context right, but he’s heard me use the phrase (too often) and he was formulating a conditioned response.
I was shocked and angry with myself that I had used that language often enough around my son for him to use it. If I keep using it, he will come to understand its meaning and he’ll begin to use it as I do. Just as my dad used phrases like “because I said so” that are now so ingrained in me.
Like it or not, your parents conditioned you – and you are conditioning your children. When you know this, you can begin to turn the ship around but it’s a super tanker, filled with years of indirect conditioning, and it takes time.
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I’m trying really hard to be aware of the responses I’m conditioning in my child but it’s hard. As much as I don’t like talking like my dad I know that what he said worked. I think I’m a pretty enlightened dad, but when I’m tired my brain falls back on my own dad’s 1970s parenting and searches for the thing that will instantly get my kid in line.
In those instances my brain doesn’t have time to convince me that a discussion with my child is the best way to solve the issue. The conditioned response comes barrelling to the surface like a grizzled old mob boss and suddenly I’m in his face, threatening to take his toys away.
I could blame my dad for the way he spoke to me, but he learned his responses from his dad, a man who learnt about discipline by killing Nazis. As society evolves so do we. We learn from our parents and evolve to be a slightly different version of the same creature. The super tanker slows and turns a degree through each generation, and we all play our small part in that.
It’s comforting to know that it’s impossible for me to always be the perfect role model. My childhood will always influence me, as yours will influence you, and that’s OK. The trick is to recognise when it’s happening. If I can do that maybe I can hold back the old mob boss and let my inner Buddhist monk come forward. If I can parent in my more enlightened way more often than I don’t, I’ll be doing my bit. If my son has children he will think my ways are old fashioned and evolve further. He’ll still roar like the old lion now and again, but on the whole he’ll be better. It’s the circle of life. That sounds like a good idea for a movie, it’s a shame Kubrick isn’t around to direct that one.