Thursday, May 24, 2007

How Do People Change?

I am reading a book that is much deeper than its title (Branded: Adolescents Converting from Consumer Faith, by Katherine Turpin, ISBN 0-8298-1738-7) might at first suggest. The author contends that our western culture has been so inundated with consumerism (the idea that what we buy or possess is what makes us who we are) that we need to experience conversion. It is not enough, she says, to want to change our orientation (to be less preoccupied with material possessions, for example). Our consumerist way of life is one that needs to be challenged and converted at a much deeper level.

Parents and others who work with children, especially children who are "different" from others, often wonder how to help our children change. How, for example, do you help a child diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) become more socially appropriate and responsive to authority? Or what does it take to move a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to a more relaxed, less anxiety-ridden life?

While the author does not address issues related to special needs parenting, her work has provoked my thinking. I wonder if there might be corollaries between her desire to provide a means of conversion beyond consumerism to the work many of us do with special needs children?

There are several thoughts I am working with at this moment ...

(1) Insight is not enough. (The author's phrase, not mine). In a helpfully written section of her book, Turpin contrasts the goals of psychological therapies with the way of ancient Christian authors. In traditional psychological therapy the therapeutic goal is to help the client become "insightful." Turpin puts it this way: "[R]ight understanding leaders to right belief which leads to right practice" (68). Change in this system of thought occurs because an individual learns or acquires enough insight to see why change is necessary; then change can result in that person's life. This is the therapeutic modality many of us parents have encountered when accompanying our children to a counseling session. We listen to the therapist do his or her best move our child to a place of insight, the assumption being that when our son or daughter "understands" how hie or her behavior affects others change will occur.

And yet, I have to ask, how many parents leave therapy sessions wondering why they bothered in the first place? Exactly how much insight is a multiple-diagnosis child going to acquire? For the child whose brain has been organically damaged due to prenatal exposure to alcohol or other chemicals, what does "insight" look like? For the ODD adolescent, is there even a remote possibility s/he is open to insight at all? I just wonder how much some of the foundational tenets of traditional psychology apply to children with special needs?

(2) If not insight, then what? The author's contrast to the traditional means of change described above is to look back to the ancient means of spiritual formation, or to use more religious language "conversion." The reverse was true for the ancient, spiritually inclined: if one wanted to understand the insights of the acknowledged "spiritual" ones, the first task was to "mimic their lives" (69). The concern was less with getting the thinking right and more with addressing behavior to begin with. It was the change in behavior or habits, then, that resulted in a change of insight.

So ... what might this mean? For starters, maybe there is some value in recognizing that children do not always have to understand why a parent insists on a particular behavioral expectation. For example, in our home it is the expectation that we will worship together every Sunday. Some people assume (and our children often, as well) that this is only because of my vocational life and if, for some reason, I ceased being a pastor our worship commitment would change. While there is no way to currently prove this supposition, we have had occasional "conversations" with our children about this issue, and for us it is simply non-negotiable, regardless of what their father does for a living. It is that valuable to us, and so our children conform to that behavior, although it is sometimes with some tension involved. I have encountered too many parents who say to me, "Well, we don't want to force religion down our children's throats. We want them to want to be in church." Certainly that is the desire of any church-going family, but the truth is that behavior precedes insight. And it does for adults, too. There are Sunday mornings when I do not particularly "feel" like getting up early to lead two worship services, but when I make the behavioral choice to do so, I am always grateful. The insight comes after the behavior. Perhaps we need to worry less about our children "getting" it and more about them "doing" it.

But here is not what I'm saying. I do not believe that parents should be bullies, or dictators or enforcers. I do believe that parents should model what they expect, that parents should identify clearly what are non-negotiables, and that parents should persist in ensuring (to the best of their ability) that behavior, whether or not the child's "insight" is present.

What would it be like in our society if all of us ... child or adult ... acted with integrity in ways we know to be best, regardless of our feelings, our supposed insight or desire? I suspect we would live in a much different world.

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