Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Straighten Your Crown

Written by: on February 29, 2020

Having gone to Western Michigan University during my bachelor’s program and graduating with a minor in Psychology, I thought I owned the world. Our Psych program was based on BF Skinner, who was a behavioral psychologist and I became the best student in my class at teaching rats to drink from a straw utilizing the Skinner focus of positive reinforcement. And I still even have my rat trophy to prove it…NOT!

In Skinner’s book, About Behaviorism, the author explained that he considered free will an illusion and human action dependent on consequences of previous actions. If the consequences are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger. Skinner called this the principle of reinforcement.[1] Although I never agreed fully with Skinner in all ways, I did learn some powerful lessons that I have utilized throughout my life – especially when it came to raising kids. And I have truly valued my training in behavioral psychology and positive reinforcement.

Walt Disney once said: “A child’s mind is a blank book. During the first years of his life, much will be written on the pages. The quality of that writing will affect his life profoundly.” To be honest, I have respected this philosophy throughout my life and have raised my kids with the focus that ‘they are leaders and they need to reach out to others who are hurting, because of who they are as leaders’. So, when my kids questioned right from wrong, I would direct them to “go straighten your crown and live life as the son/daughter of our amazing King…while serving others on your journey.” I now have two amazing doctor sons, one successful medical sales rep daughter, and another daughter who serves as a counselor to broken individuals. Does positive reinforcement work? I believe in it!

So, along comes Steven Pinker, a prominent Canadian-American experimental and cognitive psychologist, throwing a wrench in the machine…literally! In The Blank Slate, the author states that our brains are hard-wired machines, already set up with genetic information, which governs our responses in life. Free choice and moral responsibility don’t actually exist in Pinker’s reasoning, except that he adds, “Nothing prevents the godless and amoral process of natural selection from evolving a big-brained social species equipped with an elaborate moral sense” – even too much moral sense, notes Pinker.[2]

Pinker states the notion of the tabula rasa, ‘the blank slate’, is utterly wrong. Human nature is not ‘unbelievably malleable’, but contains a set of inherited neurological instructions that direct us to seek status, to fight and to make peace, to make weapons and tools, to acquire a spoken language, to gossip, to use common facial expressions, to admire generosity, to adorn our bodies, and to worry about the weather.[3] My belief contradicts Pinker, as I believe we have so much to learn from the moment we are born – and we learn through our experiences, our beliefs, and our ability to learn from and through others.

As Albert Einstein once said: “The only source of knowledge is experience.” (Well, that…and the guidance of our Heavenly Father through the Holy Spirit!) And, that’s a wrap. Blessings, my friends!

[1] B.F. Skinner, About Behaviorism (New York, Random House, 1974).

[2] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York [etc.: Penguin Books, 2003).

[3] Pinker, The Blank Slate.

About the Author

Nancy VanderRoest

Nancy is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and fulfills God's calling on her life by serving as a Chaplain & Counselor with Hospice. In her spare time, Nancy works with the anti-human trafficking coalition in her local community.

10 responses to “Straighten Your Crown”

  1. Mary Mims says:

    Thank you Nancy for your insight as a Psyc. major. I remember having a job using ether on rats to put them to sleep before surgery, as well as cleaning the cages! It’s amazing what we have in common!
    All joking aside, I agree with you that we are able to train up our children in the knowledge and understanding of the Lord, as well as direct their paths. I thank God for what you have done for your beautiful children, and how you continue to influence the next generation with your love of Jesus Christ! Blessing sis!

    • Nancy VanderRoest says:

      Thanks for your reply to my blog, Mary. And I laughed when I read that you were a fellow “rat trainer!” lol. I believe that our mind is an “open book” but the book may already have some influence from our parents and/or history. I am just glad that we can learn from our mistakes – versus having to repeat them throughout life. Blessings to you on your journey, my friend!

  2. Great post Nancy, seems you had great fun, teaching rats to drink water from a straw, in your undergraduate Psychology class. Your lessons on positive behavior reinforcement were certainly great and you have put them to great use in raising your children. Positive Behavior Reinforcement (PBR) is one of our core training modules in training all our teachers in our christian schools. I appreciate that it is very effective, thank you for sharing.

    • Nancy VanderRoest says:

      Thanks for your response to my blog, Wallace. I’m glad to hear that you are utilizing Positive Behavior Reinforcement in the training of your teachers. I have a strong belief that positive reinforcement offers an optimistic and constructive influence to others.

  3. John Muhanji says:

    I appreciate how you connected Stinker’s theory of the Blank Slate. I agree that Character is learned by experience and the environment one grows in. which is contrary to what Pinker’s theory of the blank slate. I find it true that after the colonial invasion of Africa, we lost our cultural ethos and impressed knowledge that was not part of us. it has since changed and it is evident that when one goes to school his/her reasoning capacity is different from that who never went to school.

    • Nancy VanderRoest says:

      Thanks for your response, John. I appreciate your comment that ‘it is evident that when one goes to school, his/her reasoning capacity is different from those who never went to school.’ It is the truth that so much of who we are is learned from our experiences and because of our perceptions. I appreciate your reflection on this, John.

  4. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    I am so glad I now know who to call when I am having issues with my rat training! What a hoot! While I picked up some ideas from Pinker, it never is either/or but always both/and. Thanks so much for your insights, and your model of positive compelling parenting of your amazing kids (we even got to meet and hang out with one!) Many blessings.

    • Nancy VanderRoest says:

      Hi Harry. Glad you appreciated my experienced rat training philosophy! lol. You are definitely correct, my friend – it is never always/never. There are always overlaps in how life is lived and where we learn from. I always appreciate your positive responses, Harry. Blessings to you, my friend!

  5. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Hi Nancy. Pinker, like skinner is a determinist. That is, much of what we think is free will is really a set of determined responses to any given context, and those responses are determined our gene’s, education, life experiences, upbringing etc. It’s not so much that we can’t learn, but rather what we learn determines how we respond. Likewise, our inherited traits determine how we interpret the world of learning alongside experiences. That’s why he doesn’t believe in blank slates. So, from a Christian perspective, I guess the question is, do we believe in the miraculous transforming power of God to overcome an inherited nature that may destructive? If so, whether he is right or not doesn’t much matter, it’s what the Spirit does to transform the human heart – “renewed by the transforming of our minds” Rom 12. What do you think?

    • Nancy VanderRoest says:

      I so agree with you, Digby, and thank you for your response. As I noted to Harry (above), it is not an ‘always/never’ scenario, but instead it is a compilation of combined learning experiences. I also certainly believe in the transformation of our minds through Christ, which allows our perceptions to be changed through our walk in faith. Blessings to you, my New Zealand friend.

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