Parenting and the “Broken Windows Theory”

I am going to write a post on parenting, something that I have never done before. Even though I have four really great kids, ages 9-15 and have been married for almost 19 years, I almost never write/talk about parenting/marriage. The reason for that is because family life is incrediby dynamic and different for everyone and I have always had a good level of disdain for the “experts” who claim to have principles and theories to make marriage and family a domestic utopia. Every five years the theories change anyway, and this includes the ways that things are approached within the Church. I am also very much aware of my own screw ups and how much I blow it, so acting like some kind of expert is just stupid.
With all of that said, I have noticed that there are those who are continually looking for methods and strategies on how to raise their kids, get their kids to obey, and get their kids to walk with the Lord. I do think about those things too, but my thinking is that you love them and point them in the right direction and help them know God for themselves while encouraging them to use their gifts and talents for God’s glory and Man’s good while also teaching them to respect others and themselves, then good things happen. It is more of a general approach instead of a specific set of steps or principles.
But, there is one thing that I have been thinking about that I have done since the children were very small and could first talk that I think has had some benefit. When I was a boy, my father, my uncles, and my grandfathers all taught me to say “Yes, Ma’am/Sir” and “No, Ma’am/Sir” and “Please” and “Thank you.” One time, I referred to my mother as a “She” and my uncle immediately corrected me and said, “She is not a ‘she.’ She is your Mother.” I was confuseda about what I was supposed to call her, but he picked up on a slight tone of disrespect in my voice and jumped all over it. I did not argue with him and said, “Yes, Sir.” My father would come from across the house if he heard me say “Yeah” to my mother. “It is ‘Yes, Ma’am.’ Not, ‘Yeah.'” If I was not sufficiently thankful for what was given me by someone, I would be corrected. That approach ingrained in me that people were to be respected.
I have taught my children the same thing. To this day, if I hear them say “Yeah” or “No” without the proper “Sir” or “Ma’am” after, I will correct them. It is a reflex. They WILL learn to respect other people and they will do it through their words and then through their actions. Hold the door. Give up your seat. Wait your turn. Say thank you. Respecting others in the moment that you are with them is not an option. I am far from perfect at this – I fail constantly – especially when I am stressed or focused on myself or just being selfish or when I am tired – which is A LOT. But, the ideal is there at the core of my being and it was placed there by my father, uncles, and grandfathers. I have tried to pass it on to my kids. It is a small thing and lots of parents will say that I am being a bit hyper about stuff like this. But, I find that if I focus on this, then it tends to take care of other things.
The theory here (and one that I never connected to parenting until a few days ago) is the “Broken Windows Theory” in Criminology. The theory, first developed by social scientist James Q. Wilson in a 1982 article in The Atlantic, goes like this:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

So, you repair the windows and police vigorously the breaking of windows. You clean up the litter and give tickets for those littering. This is how New York City was changed from a crime-ridden cesspool to the greatest city in the world back in the 1990’s. If you are vigilant about the small stuff, the big stuff never happens – or people are a lot more aware that the big stuff is not allowed and it happens less frequently. You are teaching and modeling values. I have talked with my wife about this. She is a school teacher and has a Master’s degree in Education. She insists that this approach works well in the classroom and in school administration. My own background in education tells me the same thing. Stay on top of the small stuff and the big stuff does not develop into a problem nearly as often.

As a parent, you can’t give up. You have to stay on top of things. You have to focus on the small things and teach respect and relentlessly go after broken windows and trash in the streets. It is a daily process and it is ongoing. Never say that you can’t do anything with your kids. If you can’t, then no one else can either. Address attitudes and eye rolls and the way they talk to one another. Point toward being respectful and loving and positive and helpful. It really does make a difference.

My daughter is 15. My sons are 12, 11, and 9. They still say, “Yeah” and “No” from time to time. And, I still correct them. I still tell them to take their plates to the sink and pick up their clothes off the floor and tell them that they are doing “well” instead of doing “good” because I want people to think that they have a brain in their heads. I don’t think about it. It is a reflex. But, if I can teach them to respect others and to think about others, then maybe they will get the message little-by-little. They have to live this out themselves (and if you ever see them being disrespectful, know that we are STILL working on it!). But, the goal is that they will learn that all people are made in God’s image and are worthy of respect and love and that it is better to serve than to be served – and hopefully, they can live this way wherever God sends them. I am not saying that going after speech is the ONLY way to teach that lesson, but it is one way. Maybe there are other “broken windows” that a parent can go after and the one that I shared here is not really a value to everyone. That is fine. But, think through something little that you can focus on relentlessly so that the child knows you are teaching and training and are on top of how they behave. Good things will come from it.

Now, again, I am not a parenting expert by any means. Like I said, I disdain this type of “advice,” so, in reality, I have disdain for this article. 🙂 But, I think that there is wisdom here and learning to respect others is very important. It is a lesson that is not taught in one day a
nd it needs to be reinforced again and again because we can be pretty self-absorbed in life. But, focusing on the little things helps and reinforces to kids that little positives add up to a life well-lived.


3 Responses to Parenting and the “Broken Windows Theory”

  1. I have some thoughts I may add, but I just saw Karen post this, this morning, that CB had tweeted. Knowing CB, I think you’ll get a kick out of it. I commented that it was the most CB thing I’d ever seen.

  2. You are so right about “repairing the windows” and teaching respect. It is interesting though that there are regional perspectives on the yes mam yes sir requirements. In the fiercely independent part of Appalachia that I hail from, if a child says yes, sir to an elder they may quickly reply “don’t call me sir”. Our children were taught to respect others but this phraseology was not required. In the car on our move here we explained to our two children that were moving with us that the correct and expected response in the Deep South was “yes,sir” or yes, mam”. They took it to heart, but in our own family interactions it is not always used ( they are adults now) and I worry that the simple yes or yeah that is acceptable in our native culture will offend here. Interestingly, we are from a corner of the South ( NE TN) that was ambivalent about or opposed to slavery and may have developed a distaste for the sirs and mams at that time.

  3. Pat, yes you are right about the “yes ma’am/sir” being cultural. I realize that there might be other ways to demonstrate respect to other people. I wrote about that because it is important in the culture that I live in to show respect to other people. But, whatever way you can teach that to children, it is important. Just find something that is small that can be addressed over and over again until the kid gets it.