To celebrate our wedding anniversary, we went to see Peter Rabbit 2.
It’s a fascinating movie, full of laughs, but I was struck by an important truth: how you treat a person can have an impact on the way they see themselves. Peter Rabbit was depicted as mischievous and a bad seed, and though he’d done good and was blamed for something he didn’t do, and because the negative narrative was so consistent, he chose to run with it and act out of it.
So many scapegoats in our society are imperiled the same way.
Where we treat a person or people group a certain way, it will influence their attitude and behavior, much to the point that it becomes ingrained.
I’ll never forget how this applied to the life of one of my daughters when she was a teen. During one period she was constantly being told by certain people that she was trouble. It grieved my spirit as her father.
One day when I visited to pick her up from her mother’s house, I was startled to find an open can of beer near the computer she was working at. She’d gone off to another part of the house, so I curiously picked up the can and it was full to the brim, not even a sip taken from it. When she came back, I challenged her about it. She said she’d planted it there, “If I’m going to get in trouble, it might as well be because I’m doing the wrong thing!”
That stunned me in the moment and caused me to reflect.
On another occasion, I was ‘tipped off’ that my daughter was holding a party at her mother’s place. I responded by putting together a ‘covert operation’ to bust her. When I and another one of the parents ‘sprung’ them, there were four girls, a little music, and very little if any alcohol. It was 9 pm and all the girls were all completely sober. They’d been trying on makeup and clothes. They even responded well when us parents overreacted.
During all my three daughters’ teen years there was only ever one event of slight rebelliousness, and even on that occasion, the daughter in question responded well, respecting my decision that she wasn’t to go out when she’d demanded she would.
Yet, there have been so many times when my daughters have been misunderstood by certain people who just wanted to transfer their own insecurities onto them. As a father, I’ve always had faith that they’d get through these times with my tacit encouragement and without my rescuing them.
But the point is really salient. The psychological explanation of this is the reverse of the Pygmalion Effect. When we believe a person can achieve greatness, that inspires self-belief, and they rise to achieve higher than they would otherwise have. That’s the Pygmalion Effect.
The reverse of this Pygmalion Effect is highlighted in racism and other isms. Treat a person or a certain people group in a negative way, and it has its traumatic impact. Jane Elliot demonstrated this the day after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. On April 5, 1968, she segregated her third-grade class and picked on those with brown eyes and privileged those with blue eyes. The following day she switched it around, those with brown eyes were privileged and the ‘blue eyes’ discriminated against.
Those who were treated badly reacted badly. It didn’t matter who they were.
The lesson is, treat anyone well and they rise but treat someone poorly and their attitude and performance plummets.
People are affected by their environment. We thrive when encouraged—we all do. And we tend to act out what people expect of us.
If someone thinks of you as someone to be watched, you sense that lack of trust and it can be hard to rise above it. If you’re starved of attention, you tend to begin to believe you’re not worthy of attention. If you’re overlooked and sidelined, it affects your performance, and you begin to resent being treated like a mushroom.
This has an application in ministry to people. We must have an unwavering belief in the person before us, no matter their attitudes and performance, having faith that they’ll eventually respond to our loving respect and care.
If they’re recalcitrant, we do them a favor by watching them closely; but mainly so we can see what deserves commendation. We seek to understand why they’ve got a poor attitude. We’ll understand why they think we’re watching closely. They’ll think we’re waiting for them to slip up. We need to find the good, encourage them for it, and build their trust in the reliability of a sensible justice. If they do disappoint us, we’re gracious and kind while being firm with consequences, because we must believe in their long-term potential to turn their lives around.
Growth is always a longer-term proposition. Believing in a person’s resilience to bounce back after failure is inherent in their spiritual survival. It’s incumbent on us all to believe beyond cynicism and skepticism.
We must always believe in people. Jesus believes in people. We must believe that if we treat people consistently well that they’ll respond to our love. For some it takes time. All we need to do is consistently love people, which has about it the shape of patience and grace.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Tribeworks