What are we teaching our children about power and self-control?
Why do so many young men value respect above life and liberty? How far has the prison culture value system penetrated our collective psyche? Is our obsession with respect really about respect or is it about delusions of power that are reinforced by our society?
Many evenings, a dozen 11-14 year-old boys play street hockey in the cul-de-sac in front of my house, which means I need to drive through their game to get home. The boys don’t get out of my way as quickly as I’d like and some stare at me with a look that seems to say, “yeah, whadda you lookin at.” Sometimes they fight, play rap music, and leave their equipment in the street but none of these boys has ever shown overt disrespect to my family or me.
In prison culture (not that I’ve been there – I’ve just read about it) there is a slang term called “slow-playing.” Slow-playing is when a guard commands a prisoner to do something and he complies, but he does it as slow as possible. Most 4-year-olds slow-play their parents daily. Prisoners and toddlers slow-play for the same reasons – it gives them the delusion of power and control in an imbalanced power structure. The next time someone slow-plays you remember it isn’t about you, it’s a warning sign that the person slow-playing you feels subjugated and powerless in relation to you. They aren’t doing it to make you feel bad, they are doing it to make themselves feel powerful.
So why do some boys in my neighborhood feel the need to resort to infantile tactics to feel a sense of power in their lives? Maybe a better question is… Why do so many young males feel powerless? They’ll never admit that they feel powerless, but they do, and powerless young males are at the root of most of our social problems.
I love the boys playing hockey in the cul-de-sac – I’d like to join them – I want my boys to play hockey in the cul-de-sac – that’s why I bought a house on a cul-de-sac. Fighting and rap music don’t bother me… when I was 13 it would have been fighting, cigarettes, heavy metal, and hardcore punk, so in some ways they’ve made a step forward.
But at least one neighbor finds the fighting, music, and slow-playing unacceptable. She is in constant conflict with the boys. Yesterday when she backed out of the driveway, a drama unfolded when the boys cleared the cul-de-sac running to the curb and hailing her like a queen as she drove by. When she saw the sarcasm, she stopped and lit into them.
I agree with her that the boys should be courteous and respectful, but treating them with more disrespect only digs the hole deeper, escalating the conflict and providing them with further justification for feeling powerless. Smiling, laughing, and winking at them may have been a better reaction. What do you think?
I’ve concluded that believing you can control others is delusional. The only control that exists in reality is self-control. Yes, your parents, the police, the government, or your God may be authorities in your life, but that is only because you have granted them the authority. Ultimately, they can’t make you do a thing. They can give you incentives to do something or they can threaten, detain, torture, or kill you if you don’t do something, but the choice is still yours, albeit under duress.
I once read a study of parenting styles by economic class. It found that poor and working class families stressed blind patriarchal obedience, while upper middle class and wealthy families stressed self-control. At first glance, it appears that obedience and self-control are almost the same, but they aren’t. Obedience acts in blind fear of a threatening external power structure, and treats the individual as inherently flawed and incapable of self-restraint. Self-control is intuitively making the right decision in a situation regardless of external incentives or threats.
How do we instill self-control in young people? Where does it come from? I don’t know. I’d like to read your thoughts.