When Behavior Modification becomes the treatment of choice

I noticed yesterday that during debate in the British Parliament, our new President of the United States (POTUS) was described at one point as being “a petulant child.”

Figured I may as well weigh in on this a bit using my prior years of service as a family therapist, sometimes in response to “a petulant child” presented by forlorn parents. True, no one has asked me to come out of retirement and play therapist for any good purpose. But there are different ways to assume one’s patriotic duties, and at least offering a few words of suggestion to my fellow Americans seems not so far out of bounds at this point in time. By now you may be desperate enough to even consider a new suggestion or two.  .

For one thing, I’m a bit tired of hearing the diagnosis of our new President, no matter how well formulated or agreed upon that may be. I say, let’s get on with a treatment plan. At least let’s discuss such a possibility, before it’s too late to intervene at all. Why wait for the house to burn down before addressing Junior’s anger issues? With this many matches laying around and no way to remove them all, maybe now is the time to attempt some treatment.  ASAP.  How about today?

Even “a petulant child,” if one is presented to us, can be helped. Behavioral healthcare does not always require an adult to child consensual contract. I’ve written many treatment plans for which the child’s signature was irrelevant. The adults simply had to get together and themselves act appropriate to the needs of that child.

Such a child may be helped by a behavioral modification plan. Which would look something like this in relation, say, to our new POTUS. This President obviously craves praise and behaves in the way that reinforces his craving. Praise is his primary motivator. It is his drug of choice. Hint: flattery will get you everywhere. And attention for the child’s bad behavior will quite equally get you nowhere. So our treatment of choice has to center around our own praise. Call it the “art of the deal” if you’d like, but the fact is we people of the world have much leverage and power when it comes to “dealing with” this President who craves attention but above all flattery and praise. For example, try this experiment using the comment section below. Finish this statement: Donald Trump will be the greatest President in the history of the United States and receive my greatest praise ever for any world leader in power today when he __________________________.

Go ahead and make a list. If you’re willing to do so, you may share it below in the comment section. Such an experiment may net a few such statements as building a border wall with Mexico, lowering taxes for wealthy Americans, reducing regulations for small businesses (even though it is large businesses through their paid lobbyists who typically write these regulations to benefit themselves), or to rid the world of radical Islamic terrorism. But there may be other statements such as stopping Russia from advancing further into Ukraine or any other Baltic state of sovereign independence. My personal list would include his finding a way to legally and successfully end Citizens United and district gerrymandering.  And to automatically register all U.S. citizens 18 years of age to vote, just like they used to register 18 year old boys for the military draft when I was that age.  As all praise reinforcement statements are tallied up, they then become leverage in modifying behavior. Obviously, the more participants in the process, including people in other nations willing to join the praise for the “greatest world leader of the 21st Century” plan, the more likely some behaviors, like building a wall, will lose loud appeal. A world “rally tour,” or even a state by state USA “rally tour” for praise upon accomplishment of the top 3 behaviors of a “greatest ever” President, might make the current red-state supporter rallies look like Arnold’s Apprentice ratings. Way down by comparison.

Show me 3 million people who would promise to attend this President’s 2020 inauguration in Washington if he successfully organizes, attends, and actively listens for a full 60 minutes at any Congressional Black Caucus meeting, and I’ll show you at least one small behavioral improvement by that POTUS. Consequences do influence choices, and not just the other way around.

Behavior modification plans work. Except for one thing.

As with petulant children at home or in school, they are easily sabotaged not by the child but by, you guessed it, the adults who refuse to cooperate. Let’s say you have a teacher who goes along but a principal who continues to reinforce the disruptive behavior, or a Mom who goes along but a Dad who continues to praise bullying behavior, etc. Whoever offers, in such a case as our new POTUS, the loudest level of reinforcing praise will determine the success or failure of such behavior mod treatment. For some kids, it comes down to which adult blows up the most and biggest balloons.

There is something every family therapist faces whenever a petulant child comes into focus. The treatment is never up to the child. The child can always be helped. The question is whether the adults in the room are willing to help, or if they in their own pain will choose to be like hurt people who only hurt people. The latter is what I see going on now in our United States.

I’ve had my share of cases over the years where the teachers, aides, cafeteria workers, principal, etc. at school did their part in helping. But if the louder parent in the home refused to make the right noise at the right time, the child made little improvement. What such a micro problem means on a macro scale is this: the other nations of today’s world may, like the British Parliament, all figure out how to use flattery and praise of the POTUS to win their own desired trade deal with the USA, etc. They may all agree to shun or ignore “petulant” behaviors (no State Dinner for the Donald). But if we Americans at home don’t get our own act together and find our own way to flatter and praise good behavior more than bad, then the problem child will not get the help we all need to see happen. As always, the first behavior to be modified must begin at home with the adults, not the child. Especially not “a petulant child.”

Okay, your turn. Any reactions, comments, questions?


Trickle-down theology

Some of you are well acquainted with the language of “trickle-down” when used in the context of money and economics. Simply stated, trickle-down economics involves the idea that money in the hands of wealthy individuals is spent in ways that provide jobs to those below as if in a virtual waterfall, where the bigger a river is above the bigger a lake is below. In theory, say, tax cuts and increased profits for the wealthy in any economy will mean more jobs flowing down and growing more wealth for everyone else.

Count me as a skeptic where such a theory is concerned. I’m one of those folks who doubt the rich spend their money when, by nature of their acquired wealth in the first place, they more likely save it to invest in greater profits to come. I’ve seen plenty of wealthy spendthrifts in my day. They know how to save and invest far better than how to spend and consume. The river on top gets dammed up and one ends up with a bigger river on top and what waterfall remains trickles slowly into an evaporating lake beneath.

That’s my view.

I’m equally skeptical when it comes to what may be called “trickle-down politics.” That’s where the centralized powers share authority with those below in efforts to expand the local governance.  I just don’t see that ever happening. In fact, I see that as having cost the Democratic party this past election and a few ones prior.

One of the great ironies of American politics is that the Republican Party espouses trickle-down economics, which does not work, and trickle-up politics, which does. The Democrats work in reverse, and now are victims of their own failed trickle-down politics. The Republicans have built a successful party from the ground up, not from the heavens down.

Okay, and here’s where I’m another skeptic. I doubt that trickle-down theology works either.

Bigger river on top, perhaps, but beneath the dammed up waterfall lies a smaller lake below.

Waiting for God’s Kingdom of Heaven to trickle down to earth may take forever, or so it would seem. The high-powered churches are like institutional dams up top, and they work to enlarge the river above to supply their own energy needs and investment income.  They see the dwindling waterfall beyond, yet they loathe removing the dam for fear they’d run out of their own bigger river on top.

These churches simply don’t get it. Trickle-down theology doesn’t get it. So I’m a skeptic.

God gets it.

God gives us Jesus as an infant born into an impoverished family living in an oppressed region of a foreign occupied land inside an ancient and primitive period of human history. Why?

I believe it is because God understands that trickle-down doesn’t work. Trickle-up does.

Just as God’s mighty oceans form the basis for our weather patterns, causing our clouds to gather and our rains to fall and, yes, our inland rivers to then form and beautiful waterfalls to refill our oceans, so God came to us in the form of Jesus. Out of the ocean of God’s love we find ourselves nurtured not from the kings of this world but from the children of this world who represent God’s Kingdom trickling up. The last shall be first. The least of these represent the Christ who represents God’s oceanic wisdom and love. And the bigger the ocean below, the more rain falls to supply the rivers above and the waterfalls expand in circular success.

Works that way in economics.

Works that way in politics.

And, God knows, it works that way in theology as well. That is where I place my faith. That is the one place where my lengthy skepticism finally goes to die.


God’s all-inclusive resort

Back from our Cancun vacation this week. Wife and I decided to try out a Mexican all-inclusive for once.

There won’t be a twice.

Oh, others love this idea and take the whole family. Open bars and buffets for everyone. Drink up and dig in. You may be among all those lovers out there. And we might have been, also, had we started in our 20’s instead of waiting til our 70’s. Now, it’s two Margaritas before dinner, try to stay awake through the entertainment after dinner, then ready for bed. And all this after that handy siesta following lunch at 2 p.m. when the sun gets warmer and the cabana gets softer.

Okay, you’ve figured me out to be a party-pooper who should have known better than to venture into an all-inclusive resort for a week, sight unseen, thinking it was any kind of good idea for us in the first place. Cut me some slack for noticing the TripAdvisor rarely publishes the 70 year old dudes that write to complain. Their other four and a half stars go to the crowd that still drinks and dances the night away. We old codgers keep those resorts from scoring a perfect rating!

But then I decide to read Matthew 20 in the Bible’s New Testament Gospels this morning.

And I see myself glaring right into the mirror of Jesus.

It’s when Jesus shared the one about God’s Kingdom resort. Spoiler alert: it’s all-inclusive.

Starts out with Jesus assuring those who come to work at the last hour they are entitled to the same wages the other laborers will get for working the whole day. That’s like charging the mostly lemonade drinkers like me the same bar-tab as those who put away that case of beer sometime between breakfast and black-out each day. So I’m the guy that starts to push back against this Jesus idea that God’s Kingdom is all-inclusive.

One size fits all. Really? How is that fair to me, the long-working lemonade guy?

Later on in this same chapter Jesus goes to even more trouble to assure the last that they will be first, and the first last. James and John, among the very first disciples called per Matthew 4, now get the same as those called last. Parable of the vineyard laborers (verses 1-16) plays out in real life (verses 20-28). Message is clear: “…..just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (MT 20:28).

Hola! That’s me needing this wake-up call. That’s me with James and John and the guys who arrived early to work the vineyards and expected better………than to subsidize that 485 lb. guy walking back from the buffet with his 8th plateful of food when all it took for me was two plates. Or to subsidize with my two drinks what has to be by now number 12 for that other guy.

Ouch! That’s me, Lord! The guy who complains to TripAdvisor about your all-inclusive Kingdom! That’s me who still lives in a westernized Christianity of zero-sum games where fear casts out love. The kind of fear that I’m not getting enough because someone else is taking too much, when in reality I’m getting all that I wanted in the first place (see Matthew 20:13). The kind of fear of neighbor that keeps me from love of neighbor. That renders me the same kind of judgmental Pharisee I’ve always tried saying I wasn’t.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (I John 4:18).

Well, I’m a long ways from being ready for another Mexican all-inclusive resort vacation. An even longer journey away from reaching perfection in love. But at least now I feel I’m a bit nearer to the Kingdom. Near enough to see it really is a positive-sum. And really is God’s all-inclusive resort where the first make it possible for the last to afford it. And everyone gets what we’ve honestly wanted all along.