Chapter 2: Beneath the Wheel

“But then I don’t quite understand, my dear boy. Something must be wrong somewhere. Will you promise me to make a little more of an effort?”

Hans placed his hand in the outstretched right of the mighty man who regarded him with a benign and serious look.

“That’s the way, that’s the way, my boy. Just don’t let up or you’ll get dragged beneath the wheel.”(Hesse, H. 1906; p. 116)

The most terrifying experience of my life occurred several years after my journey “to hell and back.” I saw it coming when I read Herman Hesse’s novel Beneath the Wheel, recognizing myself as part of the “mighty man” and my beloved son as the boy being warned to never let up. I tried to change the situation and prevent the tragedy that I feared was coming, but the wheel had already been set in motion. Ultimately, I had to watch helplessly as someone I loved suffered terribly because of what I had done and/or failed to do.

Patrick, my youngest child, was incredibly charming. He played the violin beautifully and was an excellent student. He also could fix anything around the house and was a very good athlete. He was helpful, friendly, outgoing, cheerful, and kind. It came as no surprise when he received a full scholarship to the University of Southern California. He chose that university because of the opportunity to study violin there with a renowned teacher whom he had met during summer music camp at Interlochen Arts Academy.

The first year went okay, but he was less than enthusiastic about going back the second year. My husband (John) and I didn’t take his hesitation seriously because the opportunity seemed too important. We could never have paid for him to attend such a prestigious university. So he returned for his sophomore year, but he chose to live off campus with a group of other students rather than to stay in the dorm. The relative freedom of off-campus living gave him the opportunity to experience other aspects of southern California life. As was his custom, he told me much about the life he was leading, reassuring me when necessary that he could take care of himself.

I wasn’t surprised when he told me that he had tried drugs and alcohol, that he had become a Buddhist, that he had challenged certain professors, etc.; but I was concerned. Although he had always talked openly about his activities and had never been afraid to be different from others, up to that time in his life he had been very innocent with respect to defying society’s rules. I was concerned because he described marijuana in very positive terms and was certain that it would cause no problems for him. I was also surprised that he scoffed somewhat at my concern.

As the Fall semester progressed, my concern turned to fear. He told me that he wasn’t sleeping well and that he had taken on a part time job in order to earn some extra money. He admitted that he sometimes missed classes but assured me that his grades were fine. The whirling thoughts he expressed reminded me of the way I was thinking immediately before my “hell and back” experience. I talked to his room mates and to his music teacher who also were concerned, but nothing we did seemed to help.

Finally one night he lost his keys and was locked out of his apartment. Apparently he wandered around the whole night but didn’t remember much about it. When he finally talked to me, I couldn’t communicate with him. He used words and talked of things that meant nothing to me except that it all sounded strange and foreboding. The only thing that made sense to me was to get him home. My husband’s cousin, who lived a few hours away from USC, agreed to go get him. Patrick knew and trusted the cousin’s family and went with them willingly. They too felt that something was very wrong, so the next day they put him on a plane to Michigan.

We drove to Detroit to pick him up. He looked very beautiful with a gentle faraway look in his eyes. At first I was relieved, but soon I realized that if I didn’t stay right with him, he would wander away. He repeatedly picked up objects and would quietly give them to whoever would take them. Whatever I told him to do, he did; but if I didn’t tell him specifically what to do, I couldn’t predict what he would do next. During the three hour drive home, he talked to us of many things that seemed bizarre and out of our world. He lovingly told us that he could see that we both had something of the “shining” in us. He looked just like Patrick, but otherwise we didn’t know him at all.

At first, the strange behavior lifted for only moments at a time, during which I could see the intense suffering he was experiencing. He said little about it, but it seemed to me so soul-wrenching that I wondered how he could survive. Even though I knew from experience that an emotional/mental upheaval need not lead to lasting disability, I was terrified. As I expected, psychiatric hospitalization was advised, and Patrick eventually agreed. Although it seemed like the right decision, I feared that the Patrick we knew might be gone from us forever.

Studying Skinner had changed my beliefs about the way one individual controls the behavior of another. Previously I had thought that if children were treated with encouragement, praise, and fairness, they would grow up to be comfortable with themselves and at ease with the world around them. I saw in my own children, however, that encouragement, praise, and attempted fairness were not enough. Skinner’s analysis gave me a way of understanding what was missing.

According to Skinner, most of our learning depends on the consequences of our behavior, i.e. what happens immediately after we respond in a particular way. If we behave in a particular way and it is followed by a rewarding event, we tend to behave that way again in the future. If we behave in a particular way and it is followed by a decrease or end to an undesirable state, we also tend to behave that way again in the future. Such consequences, i.e. ones that increase the likelihood of a particular behavior, are called positive and negative reinforcement. On the other hand, consequences that decrease the likelihood of a response are called punishment. Positive punishment occurs when a response is followed immediately by an aversive consequence. Negative punishment occurs when a response is followed by the decrease or loss of a desirable state.

Skinner considered punishment to be a very inefficient, unpredictable, and problematic method of controlling behavior. First of all, it is very difficult to be certain about which behavior is being punished; for example, one may decide to punish a child for “hitting a playmate” and find that the behavior that decreases is “playing with other children.” Secondly, punishing circumstances frequently generate other problematic behavior such as thoughts, feelings, or activities that are incompatible with the punished behavior and are thereby reinforced. For example, if a child is punished for crying, the tendency to cry may remain and the child may act aggressively because it is incompatible with crying. Finally, punishment is aversive and frequently results in counter controlling behavior that may be more undesirable to the social community than the behavior that was originally punished.

Reinforcement by itself, however, isn’t adequate to explain the effective and consistent control of behavior. Equally important is the schedule of reinforcement. If a behavior is reinforced almost every time it occurs, that behavior will continue to occur predictably; if the reinforcement ceases, the behavior will soon cease also (extinction). On the other hand, when behavior is reinforced only occasionally (an intermittent schedule), it may become very resistant to extinction and continue for a long time even when it isn’t reinforced. Skinner studied the effects of different kinds of intermittent schedules of reinforcement,and he discussed the effect of such conditioning on humans in causing them to continue to behave in certain ways even when reinforcement is not forthcoming.

Verbal behavior, because it is behavior, can be analyzed in the same way. That is, a person’s history of reinforcement is very important in understanding what a person believes, thinks, says, etc. The way that verbal behavior is reinforced and punished exerts a great deal of control over the behavior of others. In a traditional approach to language, that control isn’t evident.

Motherhood was very important to me. I wanted to have a family and children who would be more happy and wholesome than I had been. I didn’t like it that I was uncomfortable in many social situations, that I hadn’t developed my talents, that I often didn’t follow through on my resolutions, that I usually felt like an outsider looking in. So as a parent, I intended to be very different than my parents had been. I was determined that I would rarely punish physically. I would not yell, or use scorn, sarcasm, nagging. I would spend time and money encouraging my children to learn valuable skills and to develop their talents. I would praise them and show them such love and approval that there would be no reason for them to go astray. My intentions were based on the fact that I expected that I would have children somewhat like me: rather ordinary with little tendency to take risks except in fantasy.

I was, however, very surprised by the children who were born to me. They were all extraordinary. All three were beautiful even as babies. They were all risk takers, trying anything new that presented itself and eager to perform in front of people. When they began school, it became clear that they were all high achievers. It wasn’t what I expected, but I quickly adapted. It was fun to have people come up and say wonderful things about our kids. John and I tried not to let their achievements become too important, but often they were the focus of our social conversation. As I had intended, I spent much time driving them to practices, helping them with projects, showing them approval for their accomplishments, and helping them succeed at whatever they tried. Our philosophy was to let them take the lead, not to push them to do what we wanted them to do. For a long time that philosophy wasn’t put to the test.

As the kids grew older, however, I began to feel uneasy. I realized that any failure or loss was much more painful than it should be, both for the kids and for John and me. When the kids were younger, they had been confident and comfortable with themselves in any situation; as they grew older, it seemed sometimes that their belief in themselves depended on their success. I was distressed to see that they weren’t very comfortable just being by themselves. It seemed like they needed success and recognition to be accepting of themselves. Eventually each of my kids had to confront the need for success in very difficult and painful ways, but Patrick’s confrontation was the most dramatic and frightening.

Patrick was seven years old when he asked to play the violin and became one of the first children to take part in the Suzuki violin program of the Grand Rapids public schools. From the beginning he was outstanding and was frequently chosen to play solos in concerts. By high school he was concertmaster of youth orchestras and played on consignment with the Grand Rapids Symphony. Friends and relatives came to hear him play and his name was frequently mentioned in the newspaper. He loved making music and bringing pleasure to others by means of it. Our principle concern was providing him with teachers and an instrument that would permit full development of his talent.

Sometimes, though, we could see that he was paying a high price for his musical success. Even though he was a very good athlete, he missed the involvement in sports that his dad and his older brother enjoyed. Even though he excelled in and was fascinated with science, math, computers, etc., he had to always put music first. His teachers, family, and adult friends had high expectations for him which they nourished with praise and interest in his music. Sometimes, though, the interest was more controlling than nourishing. What had been for him originally an exciting exploration was becoming the manifestation by which he was known to himself and others. It was frightening to John and me to consider what would happen if the rewards of musical success were taken from him. We tried to back off from the emphasis on music, but by that time it was the dominating aspect of his life.

Skinner makes a distinction between contingency-shaped and rule-governed behavior. Actually, both are controlled by contingencies of reinforcement, but what Skinner calls “contingency-shaped” behavior is behavior controlled by environmental contingencies. For example, a child learns to walk by being rewarded with successful balance each time s/he makes an appropriate movement. An individual learns to play music by ear when s/he is rewarded by hearing the sound s/he wants as s/he produces a particular note. On the other hand, “rule-governed” behavior is behavior controlled by the verbal specifications of others. For example, a child learns to dress appropriately by putting on clothes that others encourage him to wear. An individual learns to read music by following the instructions of the teacher. A person stops for a red light because it is the law. The reinforcement for rule-governed behavior is the generalized conditioned reinforcement of social approval.

Both forms of behavior are important for human beings. Contingency shaped behavior is by its nature useful and competent. Gratification is immediate as one moves more skillfully or plays a tune more accurately. However, sometimes a behavior that is immediately gratifying will be harmful in the long run. For humans, playing, partying, eating, sex, etc. may interfere with long range goals such as earning a living or developing a skill. Therefore, as part of a social community, humans can learn to delay gratification and to come in contact with long term contingencies through “rule-governed” behavior. Rule-governed behavior includes advice, directions, rules, laws, and any other behavior that is immediately reinforced only by generalized conditioned social reinforcement. Rule-governed behavior is useful and competent in so far as the verbal specifications accurately reflect the environmental contingencies. Frequently, such behavior eventually becomes contingency-shaped as it comes to be controlled by environmental stimuli. When that happens with skills such as playing a violin or playing tennis, great performances may be the result.

“Knowing oneself” includes being able to distinguish between rule-governed behavior and contingency-shaped behavior with respect to oneself: that is, between what one does because of human encouragement and what one does because of effective interaction with the environment. Unless one can make such a distinction, it is very difficult to make life choices based on one’s skills and preferences. With respect to Patrick, I believe that the very consistent positive reinforcement he received for playing the violin prevented him from learning his own reactions and relationship with it. The violin occupied much of his time and it was the focus of the role and the identity by which so many knew and loved him. Of course, I didn’t think about it in those terms at the time; I only saw, with increasing concern, that he knew his value and worth mainly as a violinist.

He was, of course, much more than a violinist; during his adolescence he strove to know the world around him and to think for himself. However, the “mighty man” of social conformity had been very good to him, and Patrick was too respectful to turn his back completely. Instead, he struggled to live both lives and to reconcile his desire to see the world through his own eyes with the “mighty man’s” desire to tell him how to see the world correctly. When the struggle went nowhere and his world fell apart, I was terrified and desolate.

Today, it seems logical to me that such a struggle would result in a psychotic episode. At the time, however, it was terrifying because of all I had learned about schizophrenia, etc. Luckily, I had seen enough of such occurrences in my own family that I knew it didn’t have to represent a lifelong affliction. Luckily, also, my family doctor saw it as a not uncommon occurrence among young people living away from home for the first time. He was very supportive and normalized the situation somewhat for all of us. We realized later that we were also lucky that the psychiatrist at the hospital diagnosed him with “Cannabis Psychosis”. Society in general is much less fearful and more accepting of drug problems than it is of any hint of “mental illness”.

At the time, I wasn’t sure of anything, but I knew from my own experience that much of what people had said about me wasn’t true. I wasn’t comfortable looking to others to tell me what to do, so I acted from my “gut knowledge”. I don’t know how well I did, but now it seems to me a logical response of a parent in such a situation.

My “gut knowledge” was to listen and to reassure him that whatever he was/is, he is loved and he is okay. I also realized by that time that I couldn’t do his suffering for him, even if I was partly the cause of it. I knew that only he could make sense out of his life at that point. If I tried to fix it, I could keep him caught in confusion between his own and other people’s values. Instead I had to stand back, trying to be supportive and understanding even as he was repeatedly knocked down by life’s obstacles. It was certainly the most painful lesson I ever had to learn.

Patrick did find a way through the confusion to make sense of his life again. Eventually he got another scholarship to study music at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. There he met a wonderful girl and got married. He didn’t finish college; rather, he began working with computers. Today he is a computer consultant who plays the violin for his own pleasure and for the pleasure of friends and family. He is as helpful and generous a person as I have ever known.

I was already in graduate school when Patrick returned from USC. What I had learned about Skinnerian Behaviorism certainly affected the way I responded to him at that time. However, it was only after more experience with thinking and learning from a Skinnerian perspective that I was able to articulate my own belief about raising children. Although it was too late to affect my interaction with them as children, my new understanding has improved my relationship with my children as adults.

My new understanding consists of the following. We – parents, teachers, religious leaders, etc. – want our children to get along well in the community, to be successful. Because of that, we teach our children acceptable and appropriate ways to act (i.e., to respond to the publicly observable stimuli in our environment). However, we also try to teach them to respond in socially acceptable ways to their own private stimuli, to the “world within the skin”. Frequently, such an attempt works against the development of a child with respect to “knowing oneself”. Rather, what one comes to know as oneself is a judgment regarding what society considers appropriate, good or bad, right or wrong — i.e., how well one mirrors what one has learned.

Much of what we do to teach our children is counter-productive if what we want is for each child to become an individual who is able to think for himself and to see the world through his own eyes. Instead, much of what we do teaches children to see the world, including themselves, through the eyes of the social community. We go beyond teaching them the socially agreed upon language for publicly observable phenomena and try to teach them what to think, how to feel, and what to desire in order to get along well in the world. In doing so, we prevent “knowing oneself” in the sense of learning to distinguish between stimuli in “the world within the skin.” For example, “I’m hungry” may become a response to the time of day or to a frustrating event rather than to a bodily need for nourishment. “I don’t like that” may become a response to the imagined disapproval of others rather than to having tried something and found it unsatisfying.

In the past, such teaching approaches may have adequately prepared a person to live effectively in society. Today, however, there are too many authorities, too many contradictory teachings. Today, each individual needs to be able to choose among conflicting ways of thinking in light of one’s own best interests (I take for granted that one’s own best interests are ultimately interconnected with the best interests of society), but few are prepared by their teachers (the verbal community) for such a task. Instead, most of us go along with the public consensus, especially the consensus of our own social groups. Unfortunately, if the consensus way of thinking is inadequate to make sense of an individual’s life situation, disintegration of one’s thinking may occur.

Ultimately it was my children who taught me. When as young adults they talked to me about problems and I responded by giving them the benefit of my experience, they stopped me by requesting that I just listen and understand. They changed my behavior before I even understood what the problem was. Later, I was able to make sense of the problem using Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior. I realized that I was trying to tell them how to respond appropriately to stimuli that I could not observe. As children they tried to comply and ended up suffering some of the same insecurities I had hoped to prevent. Rather than teaching them to distinguish and respond to their own private events, I had been teaching them to respond like me and to what I was seeing.

Skinnerian Behaviorism also gave me a way of thinking differently about winning and losing. I certainly disliked seeing myself as a “loser”, so I tried to prevent such a thing from happening to my children. I supported them in all of their endeavors, driving them places, coming up with ideas for projects, reminding them of deadlines, helping them in any way I could. Some of the encouragement was helpful I’m sure, but some of it prevented them from learning important lessons from the natural contingencies of life. My help prevented them from learning that mistakes and losses are as important as successes if they want to do something well. It interfered with their learning how the organization of their time and energy affect the outcome of their efforts. Ultimately, my help interfered with their opportunities to “know themselves” and their relationship to the world around them.

Changing my way of thinking changed my way of relating to my children.  I had to learn to help them by letting them make their own mistakes and by letting them wrestle with their own verbal responses to their world.  Whatever the reason, I am certainly now much more comfortable as a parent – and as a grandparent.


One thought on “Chapter 2: Beneath the Wheel

  1. Reading this meant a lot to me:

    “I believe that the very consistent positive reinforcement he received for playing the violin prevented him from learning his own reactions and relationship with it.”

    I strongly agree with that assessment. It makes me feel as though you know me, and I really appreciate that.

    Thanks, Mom.

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