In a discussion of parenting styles, a friend (who prefers anonymity) wrote about an insight gleaned from a book on training dogs. It seems to be relevant to any situation where rules have to be enforced while maintaining goodwill between the enforcers and those subject to the rules.
A dog owner wrote in saying: I know I’m not supposed to let my dog pull uncontrollably when I’m walking him on a leash, but he pulls so hard I’m afraid he might choke and hurt himself. Nothing I can do seems to stop this.
The trainer answered: Try tying your dog to a tree, and see what happens. In all likelihood, the dog will not pull so hard that he chokes himself; he will recognize that the tree is immovable and adjust his behavior accordingly. If so, then whatever the dog’s problem is, it’s not that he has a compulsion to pull no matter what; it’s that he has figured out that he can game you.
Obviously, very few rules should be unbreakable no matter what. But many should be unbreakable under normal circumstances. While it’s always important to consider the possibility that now is one of those extremely rare cases in which important rules get to be broken, it’s also important, in general, to be the tree. Trees do not get into battles of wills with dogs. They are not trying to prove a point when they so annoyingly refuse to move. Screaming “if you loved me, you’d let me pull on my leash!” has no effect on them. They just are that way.
If possible, avoid the occasion for battles of will. When one arises, figure out, in consultation with your spouse, whether to bend the rules. But do not allow your kids to tyrannize you. It’s not good for them or you. But don’t enforce the rules as if it were personal, except on very rare occasions. Be the tree.
Some judges and probation officers resist the idea of swift-certain-mild sanctions for probation violations embodied in programs such as HOPE. They prize their discretion and want to be able to use their professional judgment. They also find the idea of formulaic sanctioning offensive because it fails to take account of individual circumstance.
But it seems to me that they’re missing the importance of being the tree. If sanctions are invariable consequences of violations, then the probationer has control of his environment: it’s his behavior, not someone else’s whim, that dictates what happens. That “internal locus of control” is among the strongest predictors of successful behavior change in any domain.
What looks like discretion to the judge looks like randomness to the offender, who instead of avoiding sanctions by obeying the rules will tend to try to avoid them by figuring out how to game the system. And each sanction becomes both a personal affront – after all, the judge might have acted otherwise, and did act otherwise on other occasions and with other offenders – and a personal defeat.
“Be the tree” is, in some ways, very Taoist advice. I’m not sure where to find an adequate number of Taoist judges and probation officers; maybe it will help if some of them read the research.
Footnote If any reader can identify the dog-training book, I’d be happy to give credit for the insight to the original author. And no, this doesn’t mean that I think offenders are like children or animals; it means that I think that there’s a similarity among the responses of sentient organisms to their environments.