The Power of Context

I don’t think I’m a fascist, but there does seem to be something to the “broken windows” theory of crime control (yes, I’m still re-reading The Tipping Point…) – something that we can definitely learn from as parents.

In his chapter on The Power of Context, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the physical environment we create can have a dramatic impact on people’s behavior.  So, for example, one of the most effective strategies for fighting subway crime in New York turned out to be keeping the cars free of graffiti and cracking down on small offences like fare-beating.  Simple steps like these were able to bring about a dramatic and counter-intuitively quick decrease in crime levels in the 1990’s – despite the fact that more obvious root causes of criminal behavior (like social and economic distress) remained.  Taking care of “broken windows” and creating a more orderly environment proved a better means of fighting crime than tough sentencing or free prozac.

Gladwell uses this example to illustrate The Power of Context – the profound impact our environment can have on how we behave.

What does this mean for us as parents?  For one thing, it strengthens the argument that the kind of environment we create for our kids is more important than the way we discipline them. That doesn’t mean we have to keep our houses clean at all costs (and anyway, we all know that cleaning up with small children around is a bit like shoveling the sidewalk while it’s still snowing).  What it does mean is that a low-stress, well-structured and loving place to grow and play is more likely to engender good behavior than an elaborate rule book and time-out system. Kids definitely need limits, but the best way to enforce them is not through punishment, but rather by creating a space which  naturally reflects them.

It also means that the best way for us to make sure we behave as parents (the issue that should be at the absolute center of discussions of behavior and parenting) is to do our best to create environments that bring out the best in us. For me, this means getting enough sleep whenever possible and keeping at least part of the house (kitchen and dining room) relatively neat – so that I have an orderly space where I can clear my head.  It also means taking care of myself so that I have the energy and emotional resources to take a proactive role in my parenting.

The “broken windows theory” also raises interesting questions about the relationship between aesthetics and morality – but I digress…