Behavioral change is the observable component of learning. That is, if your behavior hasn’t changed, you haven’t learned anything you’ve found practical; the spirit is what the flesh does. Changes in the environment can also produce behavior change—a child will not play on a jungle gym until he has a jungle gym available, for example—but this kind of behavior change can also be seen as learning in the sense of adapting. Some important conditions for learning are: getting good help with the right timing, having the right balance between safety and challenge, and practicing the desired behavior.

At sixteen, I experienced a shift in my relationship to my next-youngest brother, Ely, from primarily argumentative to primarily supportive. The shift was triggered by a good example at the right time. I saw Chris and Aaron Poland, who I looked up to and who were our age, playing together on a school bus full of peers. It struck me that they chose to sit together out of all of their other friends and that they were playing a game exclusively with each other. I had never considered being like that and I was suddenly aware of how cool Ely was and how much I liked him. Our relationship was quite different from that day on. It was striking, too, that it took only my shift to change both of our behaviors toward each other, as if he had been waiting for me to be nice, ready to respond.

Chris and Aaron’s example came to me, accidentally, just at the right time for my development–—–may have seen brothers being friends all around me without noticing it until that moment, and I was also ready to see Ely as truly cool, not just a potential friend. Other help that allows change might be more intentional, but is still usually some form of an example, something coming from outside of the pattern to be changed—a new possibility for how to think or feel coming from a friend, family or community member, best offered without judgment.

My first swimming lesson was traumatic. I was four and easily frightened and the teacher pushed me too far. There is a continuum that goes stagnation-safety-challenge-trauma, and that swimming lesson pushed me way past challenge. I didn’t swim for years after that. When I did learn, it was by playing with my parents, slowly stretching my adventurousness and skill. Within a year or two of that, I was competing on the swim team. I think that young people are especially good at finding the right amount of challenge to take on for optimal learning, and that that ability is consistently underestimated by society, and schools in particular.

Connected to this idea of maintaining the safety/challenge balance is the idea of the need to fully experience each stage of development. Learning to swim, I would do something fun with my mom until it got a little boring and I’d have to do something more challenging to keep the fun level up. I think the development of consciousness, and therefore behavior, works something like that: A stage that is fully and nonjudgmentally explored becomes solid ground to push off from to the next stage–whether that’s swimming all the way across the pool, adulthood, or post-conventional thinking. This, too, is underestimated by our society.  The pressure to leave childhood, for example, and to become sexual, is intense and pervasive and many people do it too soon, I think, leaving innocence and egocentricity as enticing, unexplored territory.

Another factor in behavior change is whether a change requires a new skill or habit. If not, becoming aware of a true desire is all that is necessary; the spirit is what the flesh does. Some changes do not often come from epiphanies, though, and change is more difficult if it requires practice. One important factor for changing relationships, for example, is the ability to communicate clearly and honestly. It takes very little time to realize this is important, but old habits take some doing to overcome, and the skills have to be developed through long periods of close observation and evaluation, and brave attempt after brave attempt–ideally in collaboration with someone smart and loving. This is another factor underappreciated by our society—having a practice and sticking to it really allows for change—especially, perhaps, when it comes to relationships.

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