Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: 'Pull your socks up' won't change anything

34 comments
It is such a faff having to cut their toast into train shapes to get them to deign to eat it. Photo / Thinkstock
It is such a faff having to cut their toast into train shapes to get them to deign to eat it. Photo / Thinkstock

I've been picking crumbs out of my keyboard for what seems like hours trying to think of some pixie-dust perky-rainbow sparkly-unicorn intro - jazz hands - to start this column so that it doesn't sound like it is about the grim topic of hungry kiddies going to school without breakfast.

There has certainly been a lot of noise following the Government's announcement it will provide breakfast for children at school.

Here's a sample: It's outrageous, these people are feral, even rabid dogs feed their young, and so on.

I don't feel qualified on the issue given I'm an embarrassingly middle-class mother and I'm frequently tempted to send my sprogs to school without breakfast for quite different reasons.

It is such a faff having to cut their toast into train shapes to get them to deign to eat it. And even then they apparently just deconstruct it over my laptop.

But I'm going to press on through the toast crumbs, because I think we've got this whole issue wrong.

One of the reasons given for kids-without-breakfast type dysfunction is that "families have never recovered from the economic reforms of the 1980s", according to a Whangarei counsellor. Not wanting to be unsympathetic, but you've got to agree that seems an awfully long time ago to still be considered a valid excuse for your inability to give your kids a bowl of cereal.

Maybe there is something else going on here? My theory: people who do not give their kids breakfast are not evil or thick or even victims of Rogernomics. Maybe, instead, they are suffering from a widespread epidemic of "learned helplessness" on a massive scale.

You will probably have heard of learned helplessness in one-off domestic violence cases. It is the condition of humans or animals - the original research was done on dogs - that fail to respond even though there are given chances to help themselves.

Researcher Martin Seligman found, by accident, that when conditioned, dogs did not respond to rewards and punishments. They did not do what behaviourists like the still trendy B.F. Skinner, would have predicted. They had learned to be helpless from experiences - getting electric shocks - which made them feel they had no control. So they just gave up.

More recent research found "vicarious learning or modelling" - we can learn to be helpless merely through observing another person encountering uncontrollable events. Perhaps seeing your parents lose their jobs in the 1980s and becoming depressed. Because although a group of people may experience the same negative events, how each one interprets the event will affect the likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression.

Don't ask me why, but it seems bureaucrats and politicians are still tackling the dysfunction problem by thinking that you can use a Skinner-type "pull your socks up" behaviourist approach. Wake up.

With learned helplessness, this doesn't work. It is a lot more tricky than treating people as though they are rats in a maze who will push a lever if it gives them a pellet. Telling these people they are useless and feral just makes it less likely they can change.

It's not surprising. The shameful truth is that deep within us, most adults want to let go and have someone take care of them. Adult life is scary, what with jobs and bosses and responsibilities.

What's the answer? I don't know, but I do think it comes from a personal level. David McRaney, the author of You Are Not So Smart, acknowledges you feel as though you can't control the forces affecting your fate - governments and jobs and addictions or whatever - so he says you must stage "micro-revolts".

You customise your ringtone, you paint your room, you collect stamps. Whatever it is, you choose. "Choices, even small ones, can hold back the crushing weight of helplessness." We are not so smart, but we are smarter than dogs and rats. Although come to think of it, Spotty might like to clean up those crumbs.

- NZ Herald

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf02 at 29 Dec 2014 23:25:56 Processing Time: 553ms