School Behaviour

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March 2012

In the last newsletter I briefly touched on thinking habits which we learnt in school when talking about the tendency we all have to think that it is wrong to make a mistake.

Why are habits learnt so long ago in school so powerful and so long lasting?

Victorian classroom
  • Firstly, living creatures are programmed to mimic the behaviour of their parents - or those who fulfil that role in their early life. Presumably nature designed us that way so that we would learn the appropriate behaviours for our survival. It is important that we learn the correct social behaviour for the species of which we are part, as well as learning to stop ourselves getting killed.

It is important that we learn the correct social behaviour for the species of which we are part, as well as learning to stop ourselves getting killed.

To be rejected by your 'herd' will endanger you.  This is one reason why peer group pressure is so strong in adolescents. These youngsters are forming their own identities, separate from that of their parents. So as they draw away from their parents they identify instead with one another for a kind of 'sub-herd' protection. Watch a group of any young animals - lambs in the field, puppies in a litter - they play together but the parent is always around to keep them in line when they go too far.

In doing so, nature assumed that we would be reared by those who actually gave birth to us. For the most part, this works although there is the occasional example where it comes unstuck such as those rare cases of human babies who have been reared in the wild by animals. These are usually known as 'feral children' and there are many cases quoted, some possibly more fictitious than others.

A more common case can be seen with young birds, such as ducks or geese. Young birds follow a process which is known as imprinting. They assume that whoever is there when they hatch is their parent. There are photos of Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist, who, along with Nicholas Tinbergen, studied instinctive patterns and considered whether we are pre-programmed to learn certain things, walking up his garden followed by a line of ducklings all apparently believing him to be their mother!

Therefore we are all going to tend to follow the example of those who care for us. 

  • Secondly, because babies have so much to learn in those first few years of life from mobility to speech, we are given brains that are far more receptive to learning new things than they are as we grow older.

Given these two facts, it is not surprising that we tend to be influenced more by what we pick up in our early years and our early schooling than we are by those things which we want to learn in later life.

Which brings me back to the topic of school behaviour.

There are various habits, especially ways of thinking, which we pick up at school, often appropriately at the time, but which we then continue to follow into adult life for no useful purpose. Very often the fact that we continue to think in these ways actually causes us varying degrees of distress. So let's consider what these are. Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Do you keep reproaching yourself if you happen to believe it's your fault that things have turned out less well than you'd hoped? Do you usually assume you're to blame in some way when things go wrong in life?

2. Do you tend to think that you need to struggle to do things which don't come easily to you even when they aren't things that need to be done? Or do you just struggle anyway maybe without even realising you're doing it?

If you answered, 'yes', to either of the above, you probably still have a tendency to school behaviour. What does this mean?

Firstly it means reproaching and blaming yourself when things haven't gone quite as hoped or expected. This comes from school.

At school whatever we did was checked for errors, for what was wrong. 

Very often there were even big red marks on work we'd done to bring these errors to our attention. To make matters worse, on many occasions that piece of work with the red crosses all over it was something we'd worked hard at. So we got negative reward for our efforts. Very often we had to do it all again.

It's no wonder then that most of us still tend to focus our attention on what we've done wrong without even realising we're doing it. It's simply now a habit. 

What about struggle? How often do we put ourselves through it, battle to get something done or done right, when in reality nobody would die and the world wouldn't end if we didn't do it? I can give an example here of my own behaviour. 

When my children were young I used to bake a cake every week for tea on a Sunday. In those days, because I made cakes often, I did it effortlessly and reasonably well. Since my children have all left home and I tend to avoid eating too much cake because it is fattening, I have not had a reason to bake a cake for many, many years.

The bell ringers in the tower where I ring were asked to take their turn to host the annual meeting for the area. This required us to also provide a tea. I was asked, and agreed, to make a cake. On the day of the event, in the morning, I set about producing a sponge cake, something which I used to do often. I baked it and turned it out of the tins, then just stared at it - no way was I going to serve that up because it hadn't risen enough. I started wondering, in an agitated manner, what I could do to make it right… then I realised what I was doing! I was struggling! I was battling with negative emotions about not having done it well enough and feeling responsible for making it right etc. I became mindful that I was doing this and stopped.

Once I had stopped I realised that I didn't have to do anything to make it right. I could simply go to the shops and buy a cake to replace it - which I did.

My point about this story is that we all still tend to have similarly inappropriate reactions to things. In order to try and break my own habits in this respect I have started to teach myself to notice as soon as I start to struggle with anything whatsoever. I then step back and ask myself why I am doing this thing and whether I really have to do it, or whether I really want to do it. If the answer to both is, "no", I walk away, give up the struggle.  When we were in school we were told we must struggle and try to work it out! But we are grown up now and different rules apply.

Most of the time we don't need to struggle, we can simply choose to walk away.

This is true not just of things we may be doing, it is equally appropriate with things we say. How often do you try and persuade others of a particular fact or a point of view - its called arguing. What is the point of arguing? When we argue we are always trying to get another person to change their point of view. Why? That other person will also have their own reasons not to have their point of view changed and will resist. 

Consider an argument between A and B. 

  • A is annoyed with B because they were supposed to meet up at 8pm and B has arrived at 8.30. 
  • A is convinced they are in the right because they were there at the agreed time so is angry with B for being late and says so. 
  • B will feel attacked by A's anger and will instinctively go into a defensive mode so will get angry back and start giving reasons or excuses for being late. 
  • The more B gives angry excuses, the angrier A gets - because both will feel 'threatened by the other's raised arousal and will attempt to defend their own position.
  •  And so it escalates…

The row will end at some point but that doesn't mean that A has succeeded in convincing B that they were wrong, even if B apologises. How many times do we appear to agree about something just for a quiet life?

The entire struggle was pointless. It would had been far easier had either A accepted that B was probably late for a genuine reason beyond their control given that they were usually punctual- OR - if A recognised that B was a person who was always late for everything and accepted that they'd be late again so took a book to read while waiting. 

You can't change another person, no matter how much you want to. Each of us can only change ourselves. So why struggle?

Very often it feels so good just to say what you actually believe and then walk away. You won't change the opinion of someone else by arguing in any case, so why bother doing it - unless you are actually enjoying it. It takes two to argue. You are still the person you are whether you manage to change the other person's belief or not. 

So, if you want a more chilled out approach to life, get into the habit of noticing when you start to struggle with anything and pause…

Then ask yourself why you are doing whatever it is and whether you have to do it. If you find that you do have to do it just relax and do the best you can. 

And then carry on feeling more relaxed  and maybe even allowing yourself to focus on what's good about whatever it is you're doing.

If you neither have to do it nor want to do it, walk away and do something else instead.

Back in the 1970's Shirley Conran wrote a book called, "Superwoman" which was how to be a housewife, maybe with a job, and still get everything done. On the first page of the book was written:

roses with text: Life's too short to stuff a mushroom.

This little saying often pops into my head when I catch myself struggling with something which really doesn't have to be done. On the other hand, if you are a person who enjoys the intricacies of mushroom-stuffing then by all means go ahead and enjoy…  Some people iron everything including socks. It's neither right nor wrong to do that. If you are a person who enjoys ironing socks then why not? If, on the other hand, you don't enjoy ironing, why iron anything which does not actually need to be ironed by you?

Life is not endless, it is finite, it won't go on for ever. We each need to make the most of each moment we have and use it for something we truly want to be using it for rather than frittering it away on things we neither have to do nor enjoy doing. Spend your life 'in the moment, in YOUR moment' and life will bring its own rewards.

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