Correcting Behavior


Welcome back to the scuttlebutt, 


I grew up at the end of an era.  When and where I grew up, for my most formative years, the societally accepted form of correction for societally unacceptable behavior involved things like this:

“That was stupid” <cuff upside the head> “Don’t be stupid!”  Or “you’re a bad boy” <swat on the ass> “Don’t ever do that again!”

Those of us that didn’t want to be stupid, didn’t want to be bad boys, or didn’t like pain, learned to conform to the acceptable norms of behavior, at least in public.


Now, my experience and timeline is based on the rural Midwest, so if your experience is from the urban northeast, or urban California the dates may be off, but what it looked like to me, was that sometime in the 70s we as a society hit a tipping point.


We as a society decided that this form of discipline was not a good thing.  We identified that it created people like John Dillinger, David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy, and thousands of others, who’s psyches were damaged by this form of correction, and decided to embrace being bad, or stupid, or…


There were compelling arguments, and over time, society made that form of discipline completely unacceptable.  We were instead taught that the way to correct unacceptable behavior, was to isolate the behavior from the person. 

To say things like: “you’re a smart boy, but that thing you did wasn’t really very smart. I want you to go to your room and consider that.”


Now, strictly as an aside, it’s worth noting that we are (if we’re not broken) social animals.  As a species, we set up societies, and the society determines by collective agreement, what is and is not acceptable behavior.  Normal humans pick up the overt and subliminal clues and conform. Failure to conform earns anything from: Failure to advance and be successful in your chosen endeavor, to in extreme cases, the killing of the non-conforming person.  This is true of all societies, even counter cultures… The irony of self-identifying “Anarchists” that all dress the same, use the same rhetoric, have the exact same opinions of all things, down to what sort of coffee is good, is it seems, LOST on the members of that society.  


So, here’s the problem.  We’ve now had about forty years give or take of this “separation of self from behavior” technique, and we’re seeing the holes.  The school shooter who has been told: “You’re a good person Johnny, and good people don’t douse kittens with gasoline and light them on fire, that’s not acceptable…”

(You think that’s an absurd statement?  I went to school with three kids that did JUST that, and more things even worse, that I don’t even want to describe…Suffice it to say these kids would have been right at home working in a Nazi death camp.)  


See, we were taught by society after the change in acceptable methods of correction, that we were not to “rub the puppy’s nose in the turd they left on the living room floor.”  Instead, we were to take a really nice piece of bread, put the turd on it, and cover it with another really nice piece of bread.  


To start with a compliment, that identifies the misbehaving person as “not their behavior”.  If they did something bad, that doesn’t mean THEY were bad… So, start with “you’re good”, then identify the bad behavior, (this was the turd) and finish with another compliment.   To make a shit sandwich. This was supposed to keep the person from being and identifying themselves as bad.


Trouble is, it works too well at that.  There are people that only hear that compliment, designed to keep them from being damaged by the correction.


This seems to result in self-talk like: “I’m a good person.  Yet all of these kids are mean and treat me badly. That must mean they’re not good people.  Bad people should be hurt.”  


Now the fact that this Trench-Coat-Mafia boy is being treated that way because 1) high school kids are mean in general. 2) High school is society at its most brutal, where failure to conform to the norm is at its most basic level. 3) TCM boy is unable to understand or conform to societal norms for some reason or reasons, thus making him the black wolf in a pack of white ones…  seems to escape him.

(Hint, usually the odd one like that gets killed in the wild unless they’re very big and very mean.  It’s basic survival for the pack… He shows up in the snow, making the hunting harder.)


Or we get the kid that is constantly told: “you’re a smart person” (at which point they stop listening) “but you did this dumb thing.  Be as smart as I know you are.” Well, they stopped listening at “you’re smart.” And so, we get the Gretta Thunbergs (at its most extreme end) who has been constantly told “you’re smart,” yet people don’t do what I say!  


This leads to the self-talk: “Damn it, if I’m smart, and everyone I know tells me I’m smart, then everyone should listen to me, and do what I tell them to do!”  They completely missed the rest of the message, the bit about “Yet you have done this stupid thing, don’t do stupid things.”


My point to this long ramble is that this technique isn’t working.  It’s creating just as many problems as the old one. It’s time that we as a society take another look at this.  I’m not advocating going completely back to the old way of a box upside the head necessarily, but we can show that what we’re doing now is not completely effective.  


Either we need to find a third way, or we need to embrace the idea that some people are just bad, and need to be cut from the herd as soon as they are identified.  I don’t like that idea, I prefer to believe that no one starts out bad and that anyone can be reached, in the beginning. (Sadly, some people get so damaged that they eventually can’t be reached, but I prefer to believe it’s a very small number.)


It’s time to have this discussion.


Until next time, 

I remain,   

Yours in service

William Lehman


  1. Good points all, and I got my butt beat when ‘I’ got out of line. When I toed it, I stayed out of trouble. I learned to behave, and I personally believe that sparing the rod DOES spoil the child because they never know punishment for their wrong behavior. Take away their phone for a week or a month and watch the kids these days melt down. That is their total world…

  2. Also teens should spend at least half there day working at a business interacting with adults. Part of the brutality of High School is the same age dynamic.

  3. “We identified that it created people like John Dillinger, David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy…”

    Seriously!? It is hard to argue with logic like that, but I’ll give it a go. That society created people like Martin Luther King, Audie Murphy, and Ronald Reagan. That society created the American scientists and engineers who took us to the moon. That society created Norman Borlaugh, Oprah Winfrey, Jonas Salk, Amelia Earhart, James Watson, and Heddy Lamar.

    • Well, I don’t know that I would brag about creating Oprah Windbag, but you are otherwise correct. My point, which you seem to have missed, is not that the method that I and presumably you grew up with was bad, (I don’t believe it was) but that SOCIETY decided it was bad, that it “hurt their Id”… there were literally hundreds of books written on the subject, starting with that Hack Dr. Spock. And so, with the typical behavior of our nation, we swung too far in the other direction (IMNSHO) and went to “no corporal punishment, ever!” and “we must reason with our children”. I am calling for finding some middle ground.

  4. I bought into the “separation of self from behavior” technique for 70 years — “God hates the sin but loves the sinner.” But Psalm 5.5 says “Therefore, the proud may not stand in your presence, for you hate all who do evil.” Then I found myself surrounded by truly evil people. So I had to conclude that, just as evil people constantly project their nature onto others whom they assume are as evil as themselves, those of us who strive to live holy lives project that onto all people — assuming at least a spark of good in everyone. Recent experiences with truly evil people have convinced me that I was mistaken.

  5. I have springer spaniels and am on Facebook groups about them. As a regular feature, you’ll hear from someone that has problems with their dog biting or guarding food and toys. My older springer, a rescue, bit me twice. He seems to startle easily and does not like his feet to be touched. The last time he bit me, I hit him twice with a gift wrap tube. I’ve had no further problems with him. I don’t advocate beating your dog, but dogs are physical animals. They don’t respond well to being talked to. A mama dog would physically correct a pup. If we want to be successful with dog training, we can’t rule out physical correction.

  6. I would have preferred some data and closer reasoning. Do you know how school shooters were raised? Were they, as a group, known to have parents and schools who disciplined in this way? As very few people are school shooters, taking the line of reasoning “Well, none of the kids in my neighborhood, who were disciplined in this way, grew up to be school shooters, so that old-fashioned way must work.” I spanked my children, and I don’t disapprove of it now, though I think it is overused. Please don’t think I come from the category of horrible people you don’t like who reason with their children instead. Straw men.

    Fortunately for you, I actually do have some of the data, and it mildly supports your general point. Nearly all parents who are physically abusive to their children also use corporal punishment. Whenever you see statistics that show that the children who have received corporal punishment have worse behavior outcomes (and they do – your essay implies you know that those children behave better, but you can’t know that, you just prefer to think it), remember that the clearly abusive parents are in that data. When you remove the clear abusers from the mix, there is no difference in the behavior outcomes of the spanked and non-spanked children. Spanking does not turn children into violent monsters. However, neither does it show any superiority as a method.

    People who lose their tempers should not be spanking or swatting. That’s a fairly simple rule. Even that may not be a big deal.

    The harder reality is that what we do makes little difference. Strict parents, permissive parents, it comes out the same. We just all have myths we prefer. It’s mostly genetic. Don’t let your children eat lead, don’t drop them on their heads or otherwise damage their brains, give them some food, and beyond that you can’t find any environmental causes that hold up under inspection. No, really, I don’t care if people think that can’t possibly be true. Go and find something you can prove, and modern researchers in education and psychology will put your name up in lights forever, because they are trying desperately to find one. All they can find are correlations that evaporate when one controls the variables and effects that could just as easily be explained by genetics. They are experts at making those look like environmental effects in order to get published and write essays for Atlantic or the New Yorker, but they are easily explained.

    • Well sir, (I think, you didn’t give me many clues as to who you are, and I would prefer not to address you as “idiot”) You do understand that this is a “blog” right? These are opinions, based on 57 years of life, the raising of two children, (with mixed results) 20 years of Naval service, 10 years of law enforcement experience, and other various experiences that have formed my life. The technical writing that I do, is done for the Department of Defense and is fully supported by data and analytics. It’s not political, nor is it movie reviews, nor still “general nerd stuff on science fiction” which is what this blog is designed to be.
      If you’re looking for a scientific study of outcomes and a doctorial thesis on formative year psychology, you probably won’t find it in a blog called “the scuttlebutt”… or any other blog for that matter. These are the opinions, and observations on the passing scene, as written by a crusty ol’ sailor, who tries to be an entertaining author, when writing for the general reader, as opposed to the technical manuals and training documents that are his normal 9-5.

    • I find this to be a difficult issue having had personal experience with a step father who was over enthusiastic with the corporal punishment. Given his personality I think it was some sort of power or control thing. I suspect I was mildly autistic as well although it is difficult to self assess. At any rate flogging me did not change my nature so I think that would indicate for the nature argument however it did leave me with some permanent issues which I guess indicates for the “nurture” argument. In general moderate physical punishment is effective especially when young but if used excessively it tends to have effect of making the child obdurate which is not the outcome the parents want. If you aren’t getting results maybe you should try a different technique.

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