Forbidden Fruit Syndrome
What do you think will happen when you tell three year old Jeffrey: “Don’t put that up your nose!” We know what he’ll do! He’ll put it up his nose! We go ahead and tell him anyway.
We are all familiar with this phenomenon. Our attitude seems to be, “If I tell him to stop loudly enough, he’ll stop.” Even though our solutions did not work yesterday, we find ourselves using them again today. We do not learn from experience. How do we understand this parental mindset? It makes no sense in the real world. It is not rational or logical. More often than not, in the real world, it actually works in reverse!
This same mindset is behind the “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign, the Anti-Obesity push, the Stop the Violence crusade, First Offender Boot Camps and most sex education curricula. These programs are based on the logic that if you tell young people something is bad for them, they’ll stop doing it. There is no basis for that assumption. It didn’t work for God in the Garden of Eden and it won’t work for us now, yet we behave as if we had never heard of the Forbidden Fruit syndrome. These efforts fail to address such questions as:
• Why are some young people susceptible to self-destructive behaviors while most of their classmates are not?
• Why does one child in a family have a need to belong while his sibling belongs to himself, his family and his community?
• What is the variable that makes some classmates vulnerable to the effects of broken homes, television violence, low self-esteem, poverty, peer pressure, child abuse while others, similarly burdened, graduate and go on to have productive lives?
• What is the secret, negative purpose that the unwanted behavior is serving in the self-destructive young person’s life?
• In what personal context do these negative purposes exist?
• How can the negative behavior be changed if the underlying purposes have not been identified for what they are?
• What does the reality situation require us to do to replace these negative purposes with positive purposes and negative contexts with positive contexts?
It is true that our interventions do work on some young people. Perhaps that is because these individuals weren’t as susceptible to the temptation in the first place. The social programs cited above have the same dynamics on the macro-level as parental good intentions on the micro level. We can understand the misleading notion of these interventions by examining parents who want to protect their child, but do not know how it is done in the real world because they didn’t go to school for it. When parents do not know how to solve a parenting problem, they make up a solution that sounds like a good idea at the time, such as washing their child’s mouth out with soap to keep him from saying bad words. This well intentioned practice, like all good intentions, may turn out to make things worse instead of better. It may teach the child lessons the parents didn’t intend for him to learn, such as:
• “My parents solve problems by humiliating me, and causing me pain.
• “Their love for me is conditional on my submitting to their standards of behavior.”
• “If they really loved me, they would not punish me this way.”
• “It is not their fault that they have stopped loving me. It is my fault. I did something wrong. I do not deserve to be loved anymore.”
• “Since I cannot expect loving behavior from them in the future, I won’t bother trying to earn back their love. I will give up in despair.”
• “I cannot trust these people to help me. They have betrayed my trust in them. They only make things worse. They are not on my side. They are against me.”
• “I will get my power and control back by rebelling against them either openly or covertly.”
• “I am angry at them for making me feel this way. I will relieve the pain of my anger by getting revenge on them forever.”
These lessons are not thoughts or ideas. They are not conscious or rational. They are attitudes that children acquire on such occasions and carry along into adulthood. We would say the children have taken each of these well intentioned assaults personally, as if they were a reflection on their worth as individuals. They end up with attitudes towards themselves, toward others and towards life that they didn’t have before the good intention hit them. Their negative behavior most likely will get worse.
Attitudes, which are below the level of conscious awareness, predispose individuals to behave in certain ways. This means rational thought processes are not necessary. As adults, our judgement is short circuited. Negative attitudes predispose people to behave in ways that are negative or destructive. These negative behaviors do not arise out of conscious choices based on experience. The choices to misbehave are made by the preexisting attitudes individuals bring to the choice point. A lecture on drug abuse, for example, may provide information on the dangers of this self-destructive activity, but it does not have the power to offset built-in predispositions to behave in ways that are consistent with the individuals’ underlying convictions that they are worthless and unlovable. Their constellation of negative attitudes makes them vulnerable, whether they come from broken homes or intact ones, wealthy suburbs or the inner city. We call this vulnerability, not low self-esteem, but self-contempt. This is the negative context in which these destructive attitudes coexist and reinforce each other.
Larry is one such vulnerable individual. He has a whole thesaurus of negative attitudes towards himself, for example: “I am worthless.” This is the major premise of his private, unconscious logic. The minor premise is: “Worthless things deserve to be destroyed.” Larry concludes, “Therefore, I deserve to be destroyed.” We cannot argue him out of this logic, nor punish him out of it. Our well intentioned solutions will boomerang. They have the effect of putting Larry in the wrong, which will confirm and perpetuate his self-contempt. Such consequences were never intended by his parents. It just turns out that way time after time.
In most cases, the parents will learn nothing from their unsuccessful attempt to improve their child or to prevent his demise. They will have another good intention the next time and the next. Their child will get worse and worse. The degree of damage will be more or less proportional to the intensity of the parents’ good intentions, and the degree of their deviation from the requirements of reality.
It is our experience that the worse it gets, the worse it gets. It is a downward spiral. Indeed, much of the harm of a good intention may lie in the excess. Overkill can make a reasonable intention, such as “Eat your vegetables,” into a counterproductive and ultimately self-destructive commandment, such as, “You’ll sit there all night until those string beans are gone.” The logic of such overcompensatory behavior is: “If a little force is good, a lot must be better.” Also: “It is wrong to waste food. I must teach you not to waste anything, ever. It’s for your own good.” The child acquires the attitude, “Food is more important than I am. Not wasting food is more important than I am. I am in the wrong, and there is no cure for wrongness. That is who I am. I must be worth nothing. I must behave accordingly. Other more constructive choices are not open to worthless people like me.”
Well-intentioned parents, who exhibit such self-serving, excessive behavior, seek to relieve their own feelings of inadequacy and inferiority by elevating themselves to the superior position of All-Wise Bestower Unto My Child, who, of course, resents being made to feel inferior, like a worthless victim. These parents are doing more than reality requires them to do. It is deadly excess. Parental negative attitudes are a prescription for instilling self-contempt in children who were born thinking they were all right as they were.
We can see now that the use of the word “good” is ironic. These interventions are not good at all. Sometimes they are very bad indeed: The child dies of an overdose. Two hundred years ago, Samuel Johnson said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We have heard this many times, but it has changed nothing. We reject bad intentions. That leaves the good ones. We do not know what our third choice might be. Many of us are not even trying to find out. We didn’t know we had to.