Discipline and Conditioned Helplessness

The classic example of “conditioning” is that of the huge circus elephant tethered by its foot to a small stake in the ground. This strong elephant could surely pull the steak out of the ground—but does not.

This happens because, as a baby, the elephant was chained to a huge stake. When the baby elephant tugged and tugged and could not get free, it eventually stopped trying. Now, the full-grown elephant with almost unlimited strength remembers the futility of his efforts and no longer tries to free itself. This example illustrates the position of “conditioned helplessness.”

This same type of conditioning takes place in society today when young people are continually told that they are victims of circumstances. The message is that society or their specific circumstance “causes” them to be whom and what they are. When the young are continually fed this message, like the circus elephant, they begin to believe it. Messages that hinder initiative, empowerment, and perseverance are counterproductive to both the young and society. Society thrives on responsibility and people taking initiative.

Discipline Without Stress teaches that regardless of the situation that cannot be changed, the stimulation, or the urge, a person always has power to choose a response. Student should be taught that they never need to be victims—that their current circumstances do not determine their lives.

As Harry Potter’s mentor, Albus Dumbledore, advised the youth, “It is not our abilities that say who we are. It is our choices.” Likewise, it’s not only the circumstances in which we find ourselves but also our choices that make us who we are. Because we always have the freedom to choose, we are therefore responsible for our own behaviors. When we teach young people that they choose their own behaviors, they begin to become conscious that no one else chooses their behaviors for them and that they are indeed not helpless.

Conditioned helplessness is not good for youth or for society.