Caring for children is such an emotive subject. Every day as I read others' blog posts and websites and news articles- and yes, I do a LOT of reading every day- I see parents and educators struggling as they try to be rational and honest about a subject which is so loaded with feelings that the slightest slip of vocabulary or expression can send people into a complete flip.
There's an old wisdom that states that if you want social mayhem, just bring up sex, religion or politics. I'd like to add 'child rearing' to that. People feel so passionate about the way they've chosen to care for their children. It's almost become a sort of religion, with people from different philosophies desperately trying to convert others to their point of view. Sometimes a discussion thread turns into the verbal equivalent of a holy war. People get hurt. People get angry. Ego overpowers good sense. The 'holiness' of parenthood turns to 'holier than thou', and what started as a desire to enable valuable change gets compromised by people being downright nasty to each other.
So today I feel inspired to look at the mistakes we make when we're trying to change people's minds.
A common thread running through many heated (and often vitriolic) exchanges about child care is the belief that people will change their minds if you can prove them wrong using facts. If only that were true- if only parenthood was so rational! (If only human beings were so rational.)
This idea, that well-researched facts will sway personal beliefs, has been proved to be a furphy many times- climate change is probably the best illustration. It doesn't matter how many experts you have on your side; there will be a conspiracy theory or three, a contrary piece of research or ten, and an infinite body of personal belief based on anecdotal evidence thrown back at you.
Facts don't change minds. We're not computers. You can't input the data and expect a logical result. Human beings are more complex than that.
The reason that facts don't change minds is that most of us aren't scientists, and so we mistrust others' evidence. It's much easier to rely on what we know ourselves- the anecdotal evidence, the things that we've seen with our own eyes. If our child got sick after a vaccination, vaccination seems dangerous. If our child or husband is circumcised and seems to have no problems, we may think there's no problem with circumcision. If we were smacked but we feel like we've grown up okay, we see smacking as effective and harmless. We are so stuck in our own frames. We are so untrusting of the sometimes cold and distant evidence presented by strangers.
That's not to say that facts aren't useful- of course they are; before we go out on a limb trying to change someone's mind, we'd better be sure in our own mind that we're not just relying on anecdotes. We need to look outside our own frame and research our topic. But we can't expect the facts we discover to change anyone else's mind. Not on their own- no, no matter how shocking they are.
Does that make you feel despairing? It does me. Sometimes I despair that my wide knowledge of the human child, gained from a lifetime of study and experience, isn't easier to distribute so it might help others magically change their practice overnight. I've presented co-workers with facts about child-centred, empathetic childcare and teaching practice, encouraged them to change, and been laughed at and undermined for it. I've given honest, fact-based advice in forums, and been flamed for it. I feel your pain as you try to change the world, I really do. People sometimes just don't want to believe me. My experience isn't their experience; my frame isn't their frame.
Don't despair. I've learnt a few things along the way about better methods of changing people's minds. Bear with me.
Another method that seems to be used by some is the guilt-trip. Oh, come on- you know that doesn't work- did it ever work on you to change your beliefs, or did it just make you feel rotten or furious?
In fact, it doesn't work to such an extent that if you slip up and make someone feel bad about what they're doing, even by accident, you may well have lost them for good. Guilt creates fight-or-flight. When people feel guilty, they'll typically either find a way to support even an untenable position or they'll close down. It takes a very fine human being to look guilt in the eye straight off and say "I made a mistake, how can I fix it?" So drama is not your friend. Heightened emotions are not your friend.
And that brings me to language and expression. If you want to change people's minds, the first thing you have to do is try to stand in the other person's shoes and then think 'How does this issue look from here? How does it feel from here? What would I feel sensitive about if I were standing here?'. Once you've done that, you do have a hope in hell of choosing the right words.
Here's the crux of the matter: If you can't stand in the shoes of the person on the other side of the line, you have no hope of changing their mind. Speak to them the way you would like to be spoken to about your most deeply held personal views. This isn't about being patronising or dramatic, about humiliating others, about winning. It's about changing the world gently, one step at a time.
And this is why being a crusader for a cause doesn't work. Crusaders fill the whole frame with their own beliefs. They can't see anything outside that frame. To change people's minds, you need to make them feel that you understand their position and are prepared to work with them from where they are. You can't just whack them over the head with the facts, ridicule or patronise them if they argue and drag them over to your side. It doesn't matter how right you are. That won't work.
Telling stories is a good way to make people think about change. Share your own anecdotes, and when you listen to anecdotes from the other side of the line be very careful how you respond. You are treading on other people's personal experiences and beliefs; tiptoe.
Often we try to change too much at once. Enjoy the small wins! An over-controlling early childhood teacher, for example, who one day agrees to let the children choose what colour paints to use, equals a win for play-based learning. Let her discover the children's response for herself, and she'll be encouraged to go further. Don't nag her to let them decide what or how to paint as well, don't expect her to suddenly let go of the reins of the whole experience- it's not going to happen. One step at a time. Tell stories of what you saw during that experience instead of lecturing. Emphasise the good.
The last point I want to mention is that change is a painfully slow process. Here's the most difficult tip to embrace: stop pushing so hard, even if you feel your own position is vital and children's welfare is at stake.
I know this is counter intuitive, but if you want change to happen you do have to stop pushing and let people take themselves there at their own speed. Sometimes it takes generations. It is never as fast as we want it to be, or as fast as we think it should be. Here's an incredibly frustrating fact: you can't shock the human race into changing their ways overnight. You can't even hurry them up. People don't like being dragged along against their will. Let them walk, and feel their own way. Put your evidence out there without pressure, and work on your relationships with the people you want to change.
Remember that in the not-so-distant past, children were seen and not heard, beaten with straps, forced into child labour, sent away to wet nurses as a matter of course. Look how far we've come, and rejoice; realise that the fruits of your labours for change may not be seen for many years.
It's still worth doing, though, isn't it?