Things I learned from me Mum

By John Stein

Date Posted: Saturday, 4 June 2011



John Stein has worked in human services for all of his career. Starting off as a police officer, he became a community organizer while working on his undergraduate degree in psychology. He has an M.Ed in Social Restoration, and he is a Certified Cognitive Behavioral Therapist but he has not allowed that to limit his ever evolving therapeutic approach. John directed programs for both adults and children in corrections, residential treatment, and inpatient and outpatient mental health settings in Pennsylvania and Louisiana. He is the author of “Residential Treatment of Adolescents and Children: Issues, Principles, and Techniques”, 1995, Nelson-Hall, Chicago. Since his retirement over six years ago, he has presented numerous workshops for parents and professionals, has written several articles on children’s issues and he travels widely. He is a generous and valued contributor to the goodenoughcaring Journal.


Things I Learned From Me Mum 


It’s changing today, thank goodness, but when I started in residential programs in 1975 (as the acting director to open a new program), none of us had any experience or training in residential treatment.  What I did have was an educational background in behavioural psychology.  Fortunately, I also had what I had learned from my mother.

I grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania in the mid Twentieth Century.  My mother was a good Christian woman.  As such, she believed in ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’  But also as a good Christian woman, she believed in using punishment only as the very last resort, when all else failed.  More, she was possessed of remarkable patience.  It took a long time until she felt that all else had failed, until she was at the end of her rope, as she called it.  (Here in Louisiana, they say, ‘You are getting on my last nerve.’)

As a result, I rarely got punished.  Instead, I got taught.  My mother always made sure I knew what behaviour was expected and understood why it was important.  Before we went somewhere, to visit friends or perhaps shopping down town, she would talk to me about what I could expect and what behaviour she expected of me.  Often, she would talk about why it was important and how I could expect other people to respond to my behaviour.

She could lecture, but she preferred discussions, and so did I.  When I had a problem, she would talk with me about it.  She would tell me what was wrong with my behaviour, how other people felt about what I had done, and how they were responding to me.  She would talk about how my behaviour made them feel.  She would tell me what she had seen in their faces and ask me if I had noticed.  I learned a lot from those discussions.  She also used the behaviour of other children as examples, telling me to look at how they were behaving and how others were responding.

I think it was my fifth birthday.  My mother had a few of my mates over for a birthday party with cake and ice cream.  My best friend Carol and her older sister Darlene came.  When it was time, I ripped open my presents.  My first present was a Mickey Mouse puzzle.  I already had this one and didn’t much care for it.  I said, “I have this,” and tossed it aside, grabbing my next present.  After the party, my mother talked to me.  She said that puzzle was from Darlene.  She told me about how she could see the hurt and disappointment in Darlene’s face.  I felt awful.  I really liked Darlene.

A little later, I’m guessing when I was still five, my mother, father, and I went to a movie.  That would have been about 1951.  We were sitting waiting for the show to start.  My father was on the left, my mother in the middle, and I on her right.  My mother and father were talking quietly, so I was on my own.  I busied myself with looking around the ornate theatre and watching the people coming in and finding their seats.  I thought I was doing fine until my mother leaned over and whispered, “Jay (that’s what she called me–I hated that nickname), stop kicking.”  It seems that, unknown to myself, I was kicking the seat in front of me.  I was and active child.  I could never sit still.  More than one person had said of me that “he has ants in his pants.”  (We didn’t have diagnoses such as ADHD then.)  To tell you the truth, I didn’t see the importance.  Nevertheless, I stopped. A few minutes later, she leaned over and said, “Jay, you’re kicking the seat in front of you.  Stop it.”  Apparently, I had started fidgeting again.  I still didn’t see the importance.  The seat back was steel and I was doing no harm.  But I stopped once again.  A few minutes later, she said, “Jay, you’re disturbing the man in the seat in front of you.  Didn’t you see him turn around and look at you?”  Well!  Now it became important.  I did not want that man looking at me because I was doing something to annoy him.  From that point on until the movie started, I did nothing except make sure that my feet got nowhere near his seat.  Once the movie started, it was not a problem.  I had to sit up to see the movie, so my feet didn’t get near his seat.

One summer, I think I was about seven, I was hanging around the playground listening to the older boys talking.  I learned a new word, ‘f—.’  It was pretty impressive, how they used it so importantly.  I decided to try it with my mother and dropped it one day in a conversation to see whether my mother would be impressed.  She was not.  She explained to me that polite people did not use that word in polite company, and that’s the reason I had never heard it before.  I don’t remember all the details.  She didn’t tell me what it meant.  Nevertheless, I understood that it was not acceptable for me to say it again.  A few days later, it slipped out before I knew what I was saying.  She didn’t punish me.  We just had the conversation one more time, and I never used that word again until I was much older, and then only in certain company.

I remember only one spanking.  I know my mother smacked me on occasion, if only because I remember being afraid I was going to get hit.  Most of the time, however, I remember being surprised that I didn’t get spanked.  It was late fall and I was in the fourth grade, eight years old..  I was allowed to go out and play after school and was supposed to come home at five.  It was a problem for me.  My friends got to stay later, so I…well, I was often late coming home for dinner. My mother tried everything.  She talked to me about how she had dinner ready at five and it was  dried out and tasteless from sitting on the stove so long when I was late.  She talked to me about being stuck in the kitchen cleaning up dinner missing the news on TV because I was late.  “Come home when you see it starting to get dark.”   “When you see the street lights come on, it’s time to come home.”   I wanted to come home on time.  I wasn’t being deliberately defiant.   But I was concentrating on impressing my friends, catching baseballs or making tackles (we played American football).  I never noticed its getting dark, never saw the street lights come on.

Then she bought me a watch.  I loved my shiny new watch.  It helped for a few days.  Then it stopped and I was late again. Apparently it wasn’t up to the shocks of catching baseballs and making tackles.  So she bought me another watch, one that was shock proof.  I did better.  Then, one evening, I looked at my watch and it was five minutes after five.  I immediately ran all the way home and up the steps to our second floor apartment, thinking I wasn’t all that late.  But my mother was at the end of her rope.  I had gotten on her last nerve.  She grabbed me, put me over her knee, looked around for something and picked up a blue plastic ruler that belonged to my best friend.  (It was there because we were working together on a school project at my house and I didn’t have a decent ruler.)  She wailed on my butt until the ruler broke.  I cried, even though it didn’t hurt a bit.  The ruler was too light to inflict any pain through my stiff new blue jeans.  I barely felt it.  (New jeans in those days were so heavy and stiff that they were almost like cast iron until they had been washed several times.  With the heavy back pockets besides, it was like wearing armor.)

All of a sudden, it became very important to me to come home on time.  It was not because I had received a painful walloping, because the walloping was not the least bit painful.  In fact, it was sadly laughable.  Had it been all that my mother intended, I might have learned a very different lesson.  However, instead of thinking about what my mother had done to me, I had to think about what I had done to my mother.  I had driven my mother to the edge, to the end of her rope, to the point where she wanted to hurt me because she no longer knew what else to do, and made her laughable in the attempt.  I never wanted to see my mother in such a predicament again.  I began to be very attentive to the time.  To this day, I always wear a watch and almost always know the time within five or ten minutes without looking, even when I awake in the middle of the night.

My mother also used this same approach (the teaching, not the spanking) with other children on occasion.  I remember when I was in the first grade, there was this boy who didn’t have any friends.  His main way of relating with other kids was pushing them around and intimidating them.  He beat me up on more than one occasion.  One day after school, he and I were somehow together when a teacher came by and struck up a conversation.  To impress the teacher, he told her how he and I would pretend to fight and wanted me to pretend to fight with him. I did so.  He ended up crying.  Apparently, I had landed an unexpected punch.  After I got home, he came to my house and complained to my mother about how I had taken unfair advantage of him.  She sent me outside and let him play with my toys while she talked with him.  She told me later what had happened.  She talked with him about his bullying behaviour and why I and other kids didn’t like him and such, that it was all about his behaviour.  She said in the end he thanked her saying, “No one ever talked to me like this before.”  He finally understood some things. I don’t remember anything about what became of him because we moved soon afterwards.

What I learned from me mum, what she taught me, was to think, specifically, to always think about the consequences of my behaviour.  Not the consequences that she or someone else would impose on me if I got caught, but rather the real consequences of my behaviour, even if I never got caught–all the possible consequences.  She taught me constantly and consistently  Then she trusted me and expected me to make good decisions and do the right thing.  And when I messed up, she expected me to fix it, to do whatever I could to repair the harm, as it were.  It is these consequences that make moral beings out of us.  Not spankings and groundings and fines and imprisonment.

When I was in my freshman year at university, we had a prank that we sometimes played on one another, ‘pennying a door.’  (It was an engineering school, we had lots of pranks we thought clever.)  The doors opened into our rooms.  To penny a door, one or two guys would push hard on the top of a closed door from the corridor, bending it in a bit and pressing against the door latch.  Then someone would slide two or three pennies into the space between the door and the door jamb.  We would then release the pressure on the door and the wedged pennies would maintain the pressure on the latch, making the door knob difficult to turn.  It felt as if the door were locked.  In effect, the victims were locked in their rooms.  A harmless prank.  Really funny if they missed dinner or a class.  But dangerous if there were a fire.   When I was part of the prank, I always insisted that we be sure that someone would be at hand to let them out in an emergency, and that  the pennies be removed before we went to bed if they had not yet been discovered.

When I began my work in residential treatment, with my background in behavioural psychology that taught me about consequences controlling behaviour, I strove to create an environment where consequences for behaviour were consistent.  I created a point system in which residents earned points for desirable behaviours (such as getting up on time and making their beds) and lost points for undesirable behaviours (such as cursing and hitting).  I was pretty proud of it.  It was not dramatically effective, no matter how consistent we were.

But I also had what I had learned from me mum, who taught me to think more about the real consequences of behaviour than about the consequences that people might provide.  I gradually began to realize what my mother knew all along, that it is the real consequences that control behaviour, provided that children perceive and understand those consequences.  Adults have to teach children about those consequences.  Adults can’t do this when they are always imposing consequences and telling children to behave because of the consequences they will impose if they don’t.  Sooner or later, children figure out that those consequences occur only if they get blamed for what happens.  Not being stupid, children begin to develop strategies to avoid being blamed.  They can’t get blamed if they don’t get caught.  (I have worked with a number of children who were really, really sneaky.)  And they can’t get blamed if they can convince adults that it wasn’t their fault.  (I’ve dealt with too many kids who would have made excellent lawyers.)

And so I gradually drifted away emphasizing consistent consequences and began to concentrate on what I had learned from my mother–teach children to think about the real consequences of their behaviour, then trust them to behave well and be consistent with your expectations that they will behave well.  We gradually became very effective, but I was fortunate to have staff who were as good as my mother at teaching these things to children, once I gave them the opportunity and support to do so.  The kids were fortunate, too.  We gradually placed more and more emphasis on teaching, and as a result, the children gradually began to place more and more emphasis on behaving.  At times, I would overhear them gently correcting each other. (“We don’t use that kind of language in this group home.”)  Many came back over the years to thank the staff for what they had taught them, because what they had taught them really worked to improve their lives.

Consequences are important, just not the ones adults arrange so carefully.  Unknown

Character is who you are when no one else is around.  Unknown

Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.   
Booker T. Washington

The only discipline that lasts is self-discipline.   O.A. “Bum” Phillips, American football coach



Jeremy Millar  writes,

A lovely piece John. I can link it to virtue ethics ‘a good life, well lived’. We need to cultivate this care in those that do the caring even if they haven’t maybe travelled the same road.