One of the great benefits of systems thinking is that it allows us to understand the true nature of behavior. When you analyze a system, you find so much interconnectedness between seemingly unrelated things that, when combined, produce the results you see. It helps me realize there is never a single root cause to most issues. There are multiple causes.

Multiple chains of action/reaction connected in ways you’d never imagine. Kids seem to know this intuitively. When you ask them why they did something, they can point to a several different contributing factors that appear to have nothing to do with their own accountability. Behold the fluidity and creativity of a child facing the potential for punishment:

Hey kid, why did you throw a rock at the window?

  • Because the other kids were doing it.
  • Because someone dared me.
  • I wasn’t throwing it at the window on-purpose; my aim was off.
  • I had a muscle spasm.
  • The earth’s gravitational pull had a momentary influx of power, increasing to such a degree that it changed the trajectory of the rock’s path.

The thing is, some of that might be true. Aside from the stuff about gravity, the other four reasons could be part of the equation. Most children do not decide to throw rocks at windows without some amount of outside influence. I think it’s fascinating to consider all the other factors. And in more complex situations, the beauty of systems thinking is so seductive that I can easily get lost in such diagrams without doing much about it.  

Donella Meadows knows this and her book, Thinking In Systems, is fantastic at letting me sink into all the lovely complexity. But not without throwing me a lifesaver now and then to remind me what it’s all about. These moments of clarity help anchor my reasoning. I hope they help you do the same. So when we are parents and systems thinkers, it’s really important to remember the basics.

To borrow from our author:

A system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.

These are the building blocks of every system. You can make the system as high-level or as granular as you wish but everything begins and ends here. The most important piece of this three-part equation is the function or purpose. The purpose can be defined in one way, sure, but the behavior often defines it as something else. So which is true? Does the stated intent reflect the real purpose or does the behavior? Enron had a great mission statement. We could call it their stated intent:

Enron’s official mission statement: Respect, Integrity, Communication, and Excellence.

But their behaviors suggested something else. Consider the following written in a 2002 New York Times piece:

Enron’s REAL mission statement: We will strive to make as much money as we can without going to prison.

That rings a little more truthful, doesn’t it? Our author understands this and thus explains that, of our three building blocks of a system, the function or purpose has a very specific way it must be identified:

Purpose is deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals.

So the child who avoids accountability? They can offer all the rhetoric, excuses, and secondary causes they wish but a good teacher or parent will maintain a laser focus on the actual behavior. The child can say they were squeezed by social pressures and musculo-skeletal anomalies but nothing changes the fact that a rock was thrown. They can even say “I didn’t mean to.” There may be some truth to that. 

So to the question of why they throw the rock, the answer isn’t about intention. Kids truly are capable of throwing rocks at windows with no intention of breaking the glass. Just as we adults are capable of over-reporting the damages on an insurance claim with no intention of deliberately committing fraud. It’s the purpose behind the actions that matters. That may all sound like the same thing but there are small distinctions that matter.

If social pressure was, in fact, a major contributing factor in a child’s decision to throw a rock, it’s because the child’s purpose (in that moment) was to fit in and conform with the group. Because, more broadly, there is tremendous societal pressure to fit in with the group. So if rock throwing becomes a regular thing, the child may need a new group. The group is one of the elements within that particular system. You can’t easily change the purpose (a child will always want to fit in) but you can change the elements. Does it feel draconian? If there’s just one rock-throwing incident, then this would be too extreme. But if the rock-throwing grows into something more, the action makes sense.

I want to reinforce the author’s brilliant piece of clarity. Here’s the quote again: Purpose is deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals.

In closing, there are great moments of honesty that forgive many offenses. When the why is explained not only from intent (I didn’t mean to) but purpose (because I was trying to fit in), it gives us a glimpse into the system. Seeing the system helps us understand that the actor is just that: an actor with a part that they play.

Nothing is exonerated. No wrongdoing is automatically forgiven. But a deeper understanding is gained and that helps.

Photo from the Flickr collection Nature’s Beautiful Art