What Are You Teaching Them?

As a young man, the boxer Floyd Patterson was all trouble. He stole. He skipped school. He got into fights. As we talked about a few weeks ago, he once, tragically, took a picture of himself and scratched out the eyes looking back at him—because he didn’t like himself. 

So finally the authorities sent him away. It could have been another sad chapter in a sad life. Instead, Patterson was lucky enough to be sent away to a boy’s commune in upstate New York called Wiltwyck. There, under the guidance of a kind and unconventional psychologist, Patterson’s world was changed. For the first time, he was seen. He was taught. He was reached. He was more than “reformed,” in the language of the American prison system, he was loved. 

What was he taught at Wiltwyck? How did he go on to become both a champion boxer and a civil rights activist? Dr. Papanek, who changed Floyd’s life, explained his philosophy like this: 

“Punishment teaches the child only how to punish. Scolding teaches him how to scold. By showing him that we understand, we teach him to understand. By helping him, we teach him to help. He learns cooperation by cooperating.” 

Most likely, your children have not found themselves in such serious trouble. Hopefully they are not as far gone as most of the people around Floyd felt he was. Regardless, the lesson is the same: in everything we do with, to, and around our kids…we are teaching them. Even when we mean well, even when they are screwing up, just as Dr. Papanek explained, we are teaching…often the very opposite of what we’d like to show them. 

What are you teaching your children? Today? Right now? When they mess up? That’s the question. 

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