Posts tagged “self-management

Throwing Any Fish?

Behaviorism didn’t become an ism for nothing.

We are influenced by circumstantial stimuli, to events in the world around us, and there is no getting around it. Behaviorism responds to this point by saying, “Well said.” Choice Theory responds by saying, “Not so fast.”

Behaviorism, wanting more than just influence, though, goes on to claim the ability to predict behavior. In other words, certain stimuli will lead to certain behavior. Do A and you will get B. Animal trainers at Marine World, for instance, explain how the strategic use of food, like tossing a fish to a dolphin, will condition the dolphin to perform specific behaviors and tricks.

The strategies of Behaviorism have been less reliable when used on humans. Some level of success seems apparent, yet at the same time something seems not quite right.

Speaking of fish, Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird (1994), shared an interaction she had with her son when he was small.

I was teaching Sam peace chants for a long time, when he was only two. It was during the war in the Persian Gulf; I was a little angry.
“What do we want?” I’d call to Sam.
“Peace,” he’d shout dutifully.
“And when do we want it?” I’d ask.
“Now!” he’d say, and I’d smile and toss him a fish.

This story, an admission really, invites us to answer the question, How then do we teach others, especially children, what needs to be learned? How can we make sure this important learning happens? How can we, in the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, make it so? Anne Lamott went on to suggest that fish tossing may have more to do with the fish tosser than the fish catcher, or even the desired behavior –

The words were utterly meaningless to him, of course. I might as well have taught him to reply “Spoos!” instead of “Peace” and “August” instead of “Now.” My friends loved it, though; all three of his grandparents loved it. Now, how much does this say about me and my longings? I think something like this would tell a reader more about a character than would three pages of description. It would tell is about her current politics and the political tradition from which she sprang, her people-pleasing, her longing for peace and her longing to belong, her way of diluting rage and frustration with humor, while also using her child as a prop, a little live Charlie McCarthy. The latter is horrifying, but it’s also sort of poignant. Maybe thirty five years ago this woman had to perform for her parents’ friends. Maybe she was their little Charlie McCarthy. Maybe she and her therapist can discuss it for the next few months. And did this woman stop using her kid, once she realized what she was doing? No, she didn’t, and this tells us even more. She kept at it, long after the war was over, until one day she called to her three-and-a-half-year-old son, “Hey—what do we want?” And he said plaintively, “Lunch.”

A live, little Charlie McCarthy. You would have to be rather old (or be a whiz at Trivial Pursuit) to understand the significance of her referring to Charlie McCarthy in this way. Through much of the 1940s and 50s, Charlie was a radio and television personality. Debonair and quick-witted, he had a real following. He was known to sit a lot, though, given that he was the ventriloquist doll of the comedian, Edgar Bergen (the father of actress Candice Bergen). Charlie may have appeared like he had a mind (and mouth) of his own, however he truly was the parrot of his talented handler. Such an arrangement with a doll made from a block of wood is fine, certainly entertaining, but Anne Lamott recoiled in horror at the thought of her little boy becoming her own little Charlie McCarthy, mouthing her words and acting her behaviors on command.

Charlie McCarthy (on the left) and Edgar Bergen.

Where is the line between teaching and indoctrinating, between learning and brainwashing, between the pursuit of ideas and the pressuring of ideas? Are some ideas so important that they require indoctrination?

Such questions bring another McCarthy to mind, that being Joseph McCarthy of the 1950s Communist witch hunt. As a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, McCarthy claimed to have a list of Communist sympathizers and spies who had infiltrated the highest levels of government, the armed forces, and even the entertainment industry. He made unsubstantiated claims and attempted to smear the reputation of people he thought soft on communism and socialism. His tactics added to the already growing fears about Russia and communism and indeed swept the country. Fear, threats and force were his preferred tools and many people were unfairly affected by his attacks.

Joseph McCarthy

Two McCarthy’s – one a puppet that mirrored his owner and the other a politician who bludgeoned others with his ideology. The little-block-of-wood Charlie McCarthy reminds us of our temptation to craft our children into little blocks of our own making, while the-Senator McCarthy reminds us of the temptation to force others, maybe especially our children, to think and act in the way we deem best. The latter seems just as horrifying as the former.

Behaviorism and stimulus-response cannot with any level of certainty predict human behavior because humans are so .  . well .  .  unpredictable. Oh, we might be predictable now and again, but that isn’t really being predictable, is it? Some caved to Senator McCarthy’s attacks, while others stood up to him; and Anne Lamott’s son eventually said he was ready for lunch, rather than continuing to parrot about peace.

Choice Theory explains that we behave to satisfy a need, which may or may not jibe with the behaviors the fish-tossers in our life want. Better to focus on the needs of our children and then to teach them how to appropriately meet their needs. Besides helping children become self-managers, rather than parrots, getting rid of fish can improve the overall smell of things in general.

Led Zeppelin and Internal Control Psychology

Glasser referred to Choice Theory as an internal control psychology. Gaining an understanding of Choice Theory means coming into an understanding of internal control and that our thoughts and behaviors are from within us, rather than externally imposed on us. What follows are a couple of short stories that highlight this internal control thinking process –

                                                      STORY ONE
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a high school Art classroom, observing one of my student teachers as she did her practice teaching. Her lesson went very well and led to students having time to work on their individual art projects. The mentor teacher asked if he should put some music on as the kids worked and my student teacher said, “Sure.” Soon the tunes of Led Zeppelin were filling the classroom, a pleasant surprise for me, given my own 70s exposure to rock and roll.

I took a short video clip of the classroom, with music pulsating in the background, and sent it to my son, now grown and a lawyer, thinking he would get a kick out of it since he came to appreciate Led Zeppelin, too, during his 90s exposure to the music world.

My text message to him (which accompanied the video clip) said, “I am in the Calistoga High Art classroom, observing one of our candidates doing her student teaching. The Art teacher put on some tunes after the lesson was done, and the kids were working independently. Thought of you.”

Several hours later he replied, “I must have gone to the wrong school! Though I’m not sure I would’ve liked it as much if my teacher had played it.”

What a great example of the internal choice process happening within each of us all the time. My son’s comment reveals that there are many reasons a young person might be drawn to certain kinds of music. The tone and beat of the music itself can appeal, as can the lyrics, as can how edgy the performer or group is. Kids like music for social reasons, including the idea that it gives them a way to assert their independence, much to the chagrin of adults wanting to control that independence.

“I’m not sure I would’ve liked it as much if my teacher had played it.”

All of these reasons are internally based and uniquely unpredictable. Teenagers choose music for reasons that are important to them, including whether or not adults like their particular music, too

                                                   STORY TWO
My wife and I were driving to the Sacramento airport a couple of weeks ago. We went through Napa, which eventually brought us to Hwy 80 toward Sacramento. People drive fast on Hwy 80 (like 80 is more the speed limit than the highway number). We were in the fast lane, but it was raining off and on, and when it rained it was raining quite hard. As a result, I wanted to keep a safe distance between me and the cars ahead.

My wife frequently reminds me about tailgating and will sometimes ask me to slow down if she thinks I am driving too close, although in this case I was already driving slower and keeping a safe distance. At one of these rainy, slow-down moments she said, “Thank you for not tail-gating.” Almost immediately, instead of thinking thoughts like thank you for noticing, I found myself thinking thoughts like I am driving this way because it is safe for these circumstances, not because you want me to drive slower. I am a bit embarrassed to admit this about myself, but it is one more example of the internal thinking process.*


Consider for a moment the phrase internal locus of control. If we look it up we find that “In personality psychology, locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.” This definition is helpful because it explains what internal control isn’t, rather than what it is. Choice theory, and the internal control that it describes, isn’t about having control over the outcome of events. Choice theory describes how people can intentionally control their own thinking and behavior and in the process very much affect their emotions. Choice theory describes how our motivation comes from within for reasons that are uniquely personal.

We cannot control events, but we can intentionally affect our
cognitive and emotional response.

Choice theory does not guarantee that we can change the outcome of events in our lives. It does guarantee that we are capable of changing our thinking and our emotions in ways that improve our mental and emotional health.


Exercise: Begin to identify examples of your own personal internal control psychology. Identify moments in your thinking that are entirely generated by you or that are unique interpretations of events that others most likely see differently. Practice acknowledging your viewpoint as just that, simply your viewpoint. Consider what your viewpoints say about you – Are you an acceptor? A blamer? An encourager? A critic? A risk-taker? A worrier? The viewpoints that we nurture are in some way need-satisfying. Not always helpful to ourselves or others, but need-satisfying none-the-less. When it comes to our mental health and our relationship health, our internal control viewpoints are everything.


EDUTOPIA and Social-Emotional Learning

Reality: Educational journals and a growing number of school districts are emphasizing the need for social-emotional learning in schools (SEL). Increasingly, educators are realizing that academic success is less about amount of content covered and more about becoming a competent learner. For such learning to occur, schools must be emotionally safe and students must learn to self-manage their own thinking and emotions. These are mandates that if ignored, will only postpone the success of our students, and ultimately our country.


* Do you have personal examples of internal control thinking? I’d love to hear them!! Share them as a response to this post.

Three Dogs and a Lady

While at the beach recently, I noticed a woman with three dogs in tow, young Australian sheep dogs, I think, beautiful animals, obviously well-cared for, each of them on a separate leash and following her very, very closely. I watched them walk in this tight formation until she stopped, bent down, and undid their leashes. It was then that something happened that was quite amazing to me. More on this in a second, but first –

On a personal note – yesterday, July 28, was special to me for several reasons:

1) After nine months of taking three chemo pills a day, yesterday I took my last three pills, at least for the foreseeable future. The doctor wants to see how my body, and specifically my bone marrow and red blood cells, will do on its own. The pills have had some side effects, so I will be glad to be free of them.

The last three pills, hopefully for a long while.

2) I went on a bike ride with my son-in-law, Sean, yesterday. He had back surgery a year ago and has been slowly re-habbing ever since. The recovery road has not been easy, with leg and foot pain or numbness exerting an on and off presence, but he works to get back to a place of well-being in every way. So finally arriving at a point where he could get back on a bike and do a 19 mile bike ride is a significant moment that I was glad to share with him. Just a couple of weeks ago I did a similar ride with my good friend, Ron, after his own back surgery kept him from riding for so many years. I am so proud of both of these guys!

Sean and me after our first ride together in a couple of years.

3) Yesterday would have been my dad’s 100th birthday. I thought about him a lot, and about my parents in general. They loved me so much and did so much for me, and yet they operated from an external control perspective. They didn’t know better and were doing the best they knew how. I wish like anything I could talk with my dad now. He passed away before either the Soul Shapers book or the Glasser biography – Champion of Choice -was published. We would have so much to talk about.

Me and my Dad (1957)

The pills, the bike ride, and my dad’s birthday all are Choice Theory moments. Choice Theory has helped me work through the whole cancer thing, including dealing with the side effects of the drugs; and it has helped Sean work through the pain and frustration of the rehab process; and it has helped me recognize the wonderful traits of my parents, rather than get bogged down in their frailties and mistakes.

Ok, enough about me.

Back to the three dogs and a lady.

The trio and their master leaving the beach.

When she undid the leashes of these high-energy dogs, they   .   .   . did nothing. One of them even looked up at her with an expression of what do you want me to do now? She walked a few steps and they stayed right on her heels. She tried to shoo them away, I assume to explore or do their thing, but they seemed uncomfortable at this possibility. She proceeded to a hilly area with trails and ice plant and shooed them away again, trying to encourage them to play a bit and experience some freedom. Eventually, they seemed to get it and began to wander from her heels, although never that far.

The dogs were well-trained, that’s for sure, and I know parents and teachers who would love to have their children and students behave in a similar manner, anxious to please, worried about wandering to far from our heels, quite ready to do whatever we request or direct. As impressed as I was the dogs level of obedience, I was also a little bit sad at their inhibition and what appeared like fear. So much energy to run around and experience the sand and water, yet they crouched while looking up at their master through furtive eyes. As I observed the dogs I recalled a passage from one of my favorite authors. She writes –

The training of children must be conducted on a different principle from that which governs the training of irrational animals. The brute has only to be accustomed to submit to its master; but the child must be taught to control himself. The will must be trained to obey the dictates of reason and conscience. A child may be so disciplined as to have, like the beast, no will of its own, his individuality being lost in that of his teacher. Such training is unwise, and its effect disastrous.

Parenting and teaching would be simpler if all we had to do was get our kids to be obedient, but fortunately it’s more complicated than that. Apparently we need to keep in mind that there is a good kind of obedience and a bad kind of obedience, and that we should pursue one while staying away from the other. I say fortunately because this quality about being human, this complication, if you will, is what makes us so incredibly special, so individually unique, and so internally controlled. If obedience alone was the end goal we would be like programmable robots, but it turns out we are not robotic at all. Thank heavens!

Speaking of heaven, I actually do believe that this special quality of being human, of being individual and internally guided, was a Creator’s plan. This design speaks to His own needs for love and belonging and for freedom. He desires to interact with intelligent beings who are free to interact with Him, creative in their own right, with opinions to which they have arrived, and able to agree, disagree, and think through things for themselves. This level of intelligence and freedom is a huge deal to Him!

The reason the bad kind of obedience is, well . . . bad, is described in the following passage –

In some schools and families, children appear to be well-trained, while under the immediate discipline, but when the system which has held them to set rules is broken up, they seem to be incapable of thinking, acting, or deciding for themselves.

Within a Choice Theory jacket, obedience can be a good thing that ultimately leads to self-management. Without Choice Theory, a focus on obedience leads to dependence and helplessness. The bad kind of obedience also leads to resentment and, most sadly, broken relationships, as internal control human beings were not designed to be under the control of another person.

Within a Choice Theory jacket, obedience can be a good thing
that ultimately leads to self-management.

Much can be said here, but you get the point. We want kids to obey, but always within the context of helping them to be self-managers. This is the challenge of parents and teachers. We want our kids to obey, but even more we want them to be free.

* The above passages can be found in the book, Fundamentals of Christian Education, pgs. 57, 58.


Both Champion of Choice and Soul Shapers are available in hard copy or electronically.

Click here for a hard copy of Champion of Choice; click here for an electronic version. Electronic versions are available for both Kindle or iPad.


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