Linda plonked herself down with a weight of dejected sadness. “A leopard can’t change its spots! Do you really think a child can change his spots? To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m here. There’s no point. He’ll never change.”
Her ‘leopard’, 13-year-old Sam, “had always been difficult”. Linda made the appointment because his inflexible, explosive behaviour had deteriorated progressively, together with his oppositional defiance, and “the family can no longer stand it”.
“At the moment I don’t like him. There, I said it! Is that terrible of me? I know I’ll always love him, but when he’s on school camp, the family’s so calm. When he’s around, my husband and I constantly argue with him, and then we argue with each other about him. It’s not a happy household.”
The leopard analogy isn’t spot-on
While Linda is correct that a leopard can’t change its spots, the analogy with her son’s behaviour just doesn’t hold.
It’s true that some children have a genetic predisposition to be stubborn and challenging. Parents know that their children are born that way, even though it will always be impossible to identify a particular gene or group of genes that contributes to the behaviour. And, in the same way as leopards can’t change their spots, so Sam cannot alter his basic genetic endowment.
But, there’s a vast difference between leopard spots and human behaviour.
Leopard spots are surface markings, not social behaviours. A leopard’s genes determine the shape and colour of its spots, and they’re unchangeable. And, herein’s the crunch: Unlike leopard spots, human behaviour varies with the situation.
So, while Sam’s behaviour is influenced by his genetic predisposition, it’s also highly influenced by his social environment. When he’s with his parents, his behaviour is significantly determined by the way his parents act towards him. And, in that way, he’s no different to any other human. In contrast to leopard spots, human behaviour is highly influenced by context.
Like most people, Linda’s inclined to attribute Sam’s behaviour to his personality rather than the conflicted context that is her home. This is known as the fundamental attribution error. It happens because, during their altercations, her spotlight’s on Sam’s behaviour rather than the way she and her husband are handling it. Not only that, but she’ll be subconsciously hypersensitive to Sam’s negative behaviours; the ones that confirm his bad-boy reputation in the family.
And, Sam is likely to live up to his parents’ negative expectations as he plays out a self-fulfilling prophecy. We know from research that Sam will confirm their opinion; be obstreperous with his parents because they habitually expect it of him.
On the other hand, if Linda and her family begin to see Sam as potentially agreeable rather than oppositional, Sam is more likely to shape up to their positive prediction. Researchers call this phenomenon the Pygmalion effect, named after the movie in which the uncultivated street girl becomes genteel because that attitude’s consistently expected of her.
Similarly, if Linda continues to predict that Sam will be congenial, Sam is likely to do a ‘Pygmalion’ – slowly assimilate Linda’s positive regard for him into his self-concept. If she’s consistent with her more positive attitude, he’s likely to grow into the kid who sees himself as well behaved with his parents.
It would be more logical to compare Sam to hydrangeas than leopards
Linda attributed all of Sam’s behaviours to factors inside his skin. It would be more reasonable, however, to focus on factors outside his skin; the ones she can change.
If she’d considered external factors, she might have more reasonably compared Sam to a hydrangea. As with human behaviour, a hydrangea’s colour is affected by the interplay between genes and context. Specifically, the level of acid in the soil influences the flower’s colour shade, from shades of pink to purple. Similarly, the level of acidity in Sam’s family context will colour his behaviour.
Parents might consider the acidity of the family environment
Sam’s parents can retain the acidity in the family environment by feeding into his testy temperament. Or, they can lower the acidity and help him to constrain his behaviour. For example, when Sam’s parents scream at him when he’s rude or difficult, their reaction is likely to escalate his aggressive behaviour and intensify his resentment down the track. On the other hand, if his parents alter their reaction to him, the repeated unpleasantness is likely to slowly dissolve.
To decrease the bitterness in the family, his parents need to control their behaviour in the face of his onslaught. This means that they remain calm and respectful in the face of frenzy. Sam needs his parents to:
- catch his good moments and be kind to him. That is, consciously break the vicious cycle.
- ask him to take some deep breaths before he’s rude or defiant, and ignore him if he won’t.
- ask him to take a breather in time-out before he’s explosive.
- when he’s calm and in control, respectfully negotiate with him around boundaries for acceptable behaviour and fair, meaningful future consequences for his inappropriate actions.
- with calm, measured action, consistently follow through on the negotiated boundaries.
- and importantly, remain composed, respectful and dignified, even in the face of his attack – very difficult, I know. If Sam persists, I suggest the EXIT strategy. Parents exit the argument, psychologically, and if possible, physically too.
While it won’t happen overnight, Sam is likely to start reciprocating the respect. He’ll eventually learn to ‘keep his head about him.’ Why? Because, among other factors such as consistency, there’s the Pygmalion effect. Tied to this is the fact that, like most humans, Sam has a deep-seated need to feel included in the family, even though parents are, by default, uncool – fashionably.
Kids are more hydrangea than leopard
Ultimately, then, if Linda wants to make an analogy between Sam and another species, it would be more realistic for her to compare him to hydrangeas than to leopards. That way, she acknowledges the situational influences and the family’s role in them.
As Linda and her husband alter the acidity in the family context, so Sam is likely to change his colours – just like hydrangeas.
Names, locales, people and incidents have been fictitiously created by the author. Any resemblance to actual people, places or individuals is completely coincidental.