Overwhelmed by his children’s constant whining, retired British submarine captain Nick Crews snapped.
He shot off an email to his three adult children expressing his and their mother’s severe disappointment in the way they were living their lives.
With his permission one of his two daughters released the email to the press. As they say, the rest is history.
Crews began his email:
With last evening's crop of whinges and tidings of more rotten news for which you seem to treat your mother like a cess-pit, I feel it is time to come off my perch.
It is obvious that none of you has the faintest notion of the bitter disappointment each of you has in your own way dished out to us. We are seeing the miserable death throes of the fourth of your collective marriages at the same time we see the advent of a fifth.
His friends and neighbors were regaling him with stories of their children’s successes in life; his own brood had turned into chronic underachievers. Among them they had produced six children, with a seventh on the way. They had all divorced.
By their father’s account they had been superbly educated, but were not making the best use of their training or their talents. None were able to support for their children.
They rarely ask for parental advice. When it was offered they ignore it. Crews is especially upset at the way his children are or are not caring for their children.
He doesn’t exactly disown his children, but he comes fairly close. He ends his email:
I can now tell you that I for one, and I sense Mum feels the same, have had enough of being forced to live through the never-ending bad dream of our children's underachievement and domestic ineptitudes. I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about. I don't want to see your mother burdened any more with your miserable woes — it's not as if any of the advice she strives to give you has ever been listened to with good grace — far less acted upon. So I ask you to spare her further unhappiness. If you think I have been unfair in what I have said, by all means try to persuade me to change my mind. But you won't do it by simply whingeing and saying you don't like it. You'll have to come up with meaty reasons to demolish my points and build a case for yourself. If that isn't possible, or you simply can't be bothered, then I rest my case.
Naturally, the letter has become a political issue. Leftist Amanda Marcotte disparages Crews because he has not bought into her own cult of mediocrity:
[Crews was] all but disowning his children for failing to become the wealthy prudes he imagined when he and his wife created them for God and country. Right-wingers apparently love this letter, which was pretty much made to be forwarded to you by your gun-collecting uncle, lovingly embellished with animated GIFs of crying eagles and marching cartoon soldiers.
Marcotte assserts that the younger generation does not have the same opportunities that the older generation had, and blames the “age of austerity.”
Believing, despite all evidence to the contrary, that government creates jobs she fails to notice that America, for example, has not been suffering from austerity. And she pays no mind to the fact that austerity is imposed by bond markets on governments that are profligate.
Marcotte ignores the fact that Crews is comparing his children to the children of his friends and neighbors. How does it happen, he is asking, that his friends’ children are making them proud while his children are not?
Marcotte descends into self-parody when she declares that couples who stay married are “prudes.” To her mind, divorce is a sign of sexual liberation.
Being of the radical left Marcotte has penned a paean to underachievement. She obviously rejects the arena of economic competition where people strive for excellence.
Marcotte sympathizes with the Crews children because, after all, she is a chronic whiner herself.
That the Crews children might do better and might strive to accomplish does not cross Marcotte’s mind. If you have gone all-in on blaming the system, you will not hold young people accountable for their own decisions or their own actions.
Which brings us to David Brooks.
Brooks has never missed an opportunity to show the world how little he understands about human psychology, so he weighs in here to criticize Nick Crews for failing to apply the latest motivational techniques.
Allow me to point out that Crews was a senior naval officer who commanded a submarine. This means that he knows something about how to manage and to motivate young officers and sailors.
To my knowledge, Brooks has never managed or motivated or counseled anyone. He does keep abreast of the latest and most trendy psycho research and he seems to believe that since he writes for the New York Times he is something of an expert.
Allow Brooks to argue his case at length:
The problem, of course, is that no matter how emotionally satisfying these tirades may be, they don’t really work. You can tell people that they are fat and that they shouldn’t eat more French fries, but that doesn’t mean they will stop. You can make all sorts of New Year’s resolutions, earnestly deciding to behave better, but that doesn’t mean you will.
People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.
Human behavior flows from hidden springs and calls for constant and crafty prodding more than blunt hectoring. The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not with a ferocious e-mail trying to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones.
It’s foolish to imperiously withdraw and say, come back to me when you have a plan. It’s better to pick one area of life at a time (most people don’t have the willpower to change their whole lives all at once) and help a person lay down a pre-emptive set of concrete rules and rewards. Pick out a small goal and lay out measurable steps toward it.
It’s foolhardy to try to persuade people to see the profound errors of their ways in the hope that mental change will lead to behavioral change. Instead, try to change superficial behavior first and hope that, if they act differently, they’ll eventually think differently. Lure people toward success with the promise of admiration instead of trying to punish failure with criticism. Positive rewards are more powerful.
Of course, Crews was not telling his children that they were fat. He was expressing his disappointment at their moral character. And he was telling them that he was no longer going to enable their self-destructive pattern of failing in life and complaining to him and their mother about it.
Brooks says that people do not behave badly because they lack information but that they behave badly because they develop bad habits, “patterns of self-destructive behavior.”
As it happens, Crews was not providing information. He was not trying to find the meaning of his children’s underperformance. He was not offering insight. If one had expected Brooks to know the difference, one can only be disappointed.
Rather than argue the case, Brooks is arguing with a straw man.
Read Crews’ letter carefully and you will see that he was not attacking bad behavior. He was really expressing his and his wife’s disappointment and exasperation at their behavior and he was saying that they no longer wanted to be a receptacle for bad news.
In the namby-pamby world that Brooks inhabits human behavior “flows from hidden springs.” If that is the lasts piece of wisdom from the world of cognitive neuroscience, the field is in trouble.
Comparing the human soul to mineral water, Brooks excludes the possibility that human beings have free will and rational faculties. He ignores the possibility that they might actually make a decision and carry it out.
So he claims that prodding is better than hectoring. Of course, if you prod someone often enough, it can feel like torture, but why quibble.
Besides, hectoring is repetitive action. The Crews missile, as it is called, was not repetitive. It was a singular event. Nick Crews was not hectoring his children.
I agree with Brooks when he explains that the best way to overcome bad habits is to replace them with good ones. Aristotle said it first, and he was right.
Brooks is also correct to say that when people are trying to develop good habits it is helpful to encourage them.
He ignores the larger and more salient question: what would motivate anyone to want to change? Since his column is supposedly about how people change, the omission is striking.
Brooks seems to believe that people change bad habits because someone shows them a better way to do things.
This is idiotic. People change bad habits because their bad habits have been sanctioned. The strongest motivation for changing bad habits is shaming.
In effect, Nick Crews was trying to shame his children out of their bad habits. When he says that he no longer wants to hear from them until they have developed a plan to improve their lives, he is not hectoring and is not punishing—he is shunning.
Think about someone who suffers from a bad habit. Will an alcoholic stop going to bars and start going to meetings because you have kindly suggested it to him. It is nonsense to believe that he would.
Regrettably, many alcoholics have to hit rock bottom, as they say, before they have any incentive to change their bad habits. The shame of seeing their own degradation moves them to want to change. Without it they will keep drinking.