Here are two things that everyone everywhere needs to know about everyone else:
- People do the best they can with what they know.
- All behavior makes sense when viewed in context.
This is true for ourselves and our friends and family and definitely for our kids.
Knowing this about each other can make it easier to understand — if not approve — of other people’s choices. Likely if we could stand in their shoes at just the right moment, that thing they just did that we think looks like a very bad idea would make perfect sense.
Take Amelia Bedelia. Now when I was a kid, I could not stand Amelia Bedelia because she was so silly. Amelia Bedelia, in case you did not know, is a fictional maid in picture books who is forever doing dumb things like putting raw chicken in baby clothes (because her employee asked her to “dress the chicken”) or putting sponges in cake (because her employee requested a “sponge cake”). But Amelia Bedelia is certainly doing the best she can and if you stood in her shoes — shoes that are on the feet of someone extremely literal — her choices would all make perfect sense.
Kids can be a lot like Amelia Bedelia (grown ups can be, too, but let’s stick with kids here because I’m filing this entry under the “parenting” category). They can do something that we can clearly see is a very bad idea and we can say to them, “Why did you do this?” And kids say, “I don’t know.” Because they don’t know; it just made sense when they did it. That’s why they lose their homework and hit their baby siblings and eat the last cupcake that didn’t belong to them and watch television instead of picking up their toys. It made perfect sense at the time.
If you assumed your child really was doing the best she could at the time — even if at the time she was leaving her lunchbox at school — how might that change how you consider and deal with the problem? Might you think about the last time you left your cell phone at work or left your wallet on the kitchen table? These things happen when we’re overwhelmed or under slept or chatting with friends while we pack up to leave. We do the best we can and then sometimes we have to deal with the consequences when the best we can do isn’t so great.
What about your child who hits his baby sister every time your back is turned? What if you thought about the problem with the belief that he’s doing the best he can with what he knows. What does he need to know? In what way does his behavior make sense to him? I’m not talking about letting him off the hook but when we understand what’s going on our interventions are more likely to work. Maybe he needs more supervision. Maybe he needs help with emotional regulation. Maybe he’s imitating his big brother.
Assuming there’s a reason behind behavior — even if it’s a lousy reason — gives us tools to solve real problems.
I’ve written before about how change can feel like betrayal to friends and family. What happens is that sometimes it feels so scary that they drag you back and you find yourself in that same rut you’ve been trying so hard to leave. They like you there because having you there is familiar, it makes sense to them. If you change then they have to change (or at the very least change their ideas about you). And they didn’t sign up for that; they don’t necessarily want to change.
Sometimes their need for sameness will be so great that they will refuse to see that you are different.
Let’s say that when you were a little kid you hated birthday parties. Maybe you were shy and hated being the center of attention while everyone sang you happy birthday. Or say you’ve never liked frosting and dreaded the inevitable first bite of birthday cake. I don’t know but let’s just say that’s how it is — you didn’t like birthdays parties.
That became your thing as you grew up. That’s what your friends and relatives would say about you.
“Now that one over there?” they’d say, jerking their thumbs your way. “That one hates birthday parties.”
They would tell all the stories of you sitting in a corner scowling while everyone else made a fuss about presents. They’d pull out pictures that would show you wailing over the birthday cake your grandmother made, even though she’d hand drawn a beautiful frosting design showcasing your favorite characters from Sesame Street across the top.
The more they said it, the more you believed it. Besides there’s proof in everyone’s stories and in all of the photo albums; you are a person who hates birthday parties.
Only one day you start figuring out that it’s all more complicated. Perhaps you went to a birthday party where there was no singing and everyone made their own sundaes. You thought to yourself, “That’s not so bad, that’s pretty good. Maybe I don’t hate birthday parties — maybe I just don’t like getting sung at and eating frosting.”
So you go back and tell your friends and family, “Hey, I’m throwing myself a birthday party this year! Do you want to come?”
And they scoff, “You? You, hater of all birthday parties? You who threw up all over my birthday party when I was eight because we generously gave you a corner piece of cake with a big blue rose on it?”
“Well, yeah,” you say. “I hate frosting but I love birthday parties.”
“No, you don’t. You hate them.”
“Turns out I love them when they get thrown a certain way.”
“Oh so now you’re criticizing the way we throw parties? Now it’s our problem? And now you expect us to accommodate all your new fangled ideas about sundae bars when you know that in our family we eat cake! See, that’s you all over again — ruining birthdays for other people because you hate parties!”
At this point you might start feeling a little crazy. Are they right? Are you fooling yourself? Do you owe it to people to continue on your birthday party-less way because you’ve been such a trial to them throughout your life?
See, there’s a birthday-party-hater slot in their lives and you’ve been filling it for however many years. If you don’t fill it, it means they have to change and while some people can handle change pretty well (perhaps your Aunt Leonie and your best friend from fifth grade handle your new-found love of birthday parties with equanimity) everyone else might freak out.
This can be because
1) they don’t want to think critically about their own creation of your birthday party myth (your grandmother might not want to feel guilty about that Sesame Street cake); or
2) because they need you to fill that slot to avoid their own birthday party hatred (it might be that your little sister hates frosting, too, but needs you to stand in for her so she doesn’t have to suffer the consequences); or
3) they like the story they’ve been telling themselves and don’t want to stop telling it.
You can’t know, really, why they don’t want to let you out of the rut you’ve been in but every time you try to climb out, they push you back in. You throw yourself the party, you invite them all and they stand around and smile sympathetically at you, “Look at you trying to pretend you’re enjoying yourself!”
“But I am,” you say. “This Goat Cheese with Red Cherries ice cream from Jeni’s is to die for.”
“Sure,” they say, nodding and winking at you. “Sure thing.”
Because sometimes that’s how it is.
That leaves you with three choices:
- To sigh and let yourself get pushed back into the rut and give up on birthday parties.
- To argue with them until it becomes a big old thing and you’re all crying with frustration.
- To go on with your bad birthday party loving self anyway and not worry so much about how other people take the Brand New You.
There is a reason there’s a whole genre of television and movies about how you can’t go home again and it’s about growth and change and figuring out how to be the person you’ve become when the people who have been part of your life from the beginning can only see how you were. It’s painful for everybody and certainly for the person trying to grow into something different.
Change is hard but it’s worth it. There are birthday parties out there just waiting for you to show up.
And here’s Whitney Houston’s live cover of “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls.
A long, long time ago in my parenting (not professional) life, I got in a friendly argument with another mom about whether or not kids should be “made” to do something they didn’t want to do. My friend said, yes, of course, because we all have to learn to do things that we don’t want to do. I said, no, of course not, because none of us does anything we don’t want to do so what we need to do is help kids figure out how to motivate themselves do the yucky stuff.
OK, it was kind of a game of semantics but kind of not. I really don’t think anyone — kid or adult — does anything that they don’t want to do so the key is helping them want to do it.
All of us do things because:
- We enjoy doing them;
- We enjoy the results; or
- We want to avoid what will happen if we don’t do them.
We clean our houses not necessarily because we like cleaning; we clean them because we like clean houses.
We go to the dentist not because we love going to the dentist; we go because we fear what will happen if we are lax in our dental care or because we love the feeling of having shiny, clean teeth.
We pay our electrical bill not because we like writing checks to the utility companies; we pay because we don’t want to lose our access to electricity.
When it comes to our kids, figuring out what motivates them — and helping them figure out what motivates them — is better than “making” them do whatever it is that we want them to do.
Many parents use incentives to help motivate kids, which may be a good short-term strategy. But it’s important to understand that extrinsic rewards — such as a new toy or a shiny quarter — wear off. Outside payment, otherwise unconnected to the behavior you want to encourage, operates under the law of diminishing returns. Eventually, if the child doesn’t figure out how to motivate herself, she’s going to demand more of a pay-off.
I encourage parents to see the extrinsic pay-off as a bridge to an intrinsic reward. In other words, instead of putting stickers on a chart so the child can buy a bigger event (a new Lego kit or a pizza party) or to count the number of dollars they’ll get at the end of the week, use the chart to keep track of their accomplishments. Some children will find a (mostly) full chart reward enough and that pay off — the satisfaction of seeing all of those stars lined up, proof of their hard work — can help them start to internalize the good feeling of a difficult job well done.
Parents also use natural (or unnatural) consequence. You know, clean your room or lose your Xbox. Get up on time or miss the bus. Natural consequences make sense; buses are actually missed when people oversleep. Unnatural consequences can make kids dig in their heels. A child who isn’t convinced that room cleaning is really necessary may just see the punishing parent as the bad guy instead of understanding that it’s their behavior driving the problem. So if you do take away the Xbox, make sure there’s a way for the child to earn it back. Instead of an arbitrary number of days, return the console when the room is clean.
Kids — like the rest of us — don’t get good at stuff over night. It can take years (seriously) to grow a child who can keep her room clean without nagging. You may have to harangue your son or daughter about homework for most of their school years. But don’t lose heart! Remember that you’re building a long-term habit here; the habit of helping them find what motivates them.
W.I. Thomas: “If people believe something to be true, it is true in its consequences.”
In other words, we act on our beliefs as if they were facts, right?
All of us do this. We “know” that college is a necessity. We “know” that everyone should eat more broccoli. We “know” that standardized tests are bad (or good) and that co-sleeping is bad (or good) and that organized religion is bad (or good) and so on and so on and so on.
The problem is that some of these things are opinions and some are facts only in a certain context. I mean, broccoli is super good for you — unless you’re allergic.
But if you believe something is truly truly true, then of course you’re going to act as if it’s true with the same commitment and certainty that you will bring to the multiplication tables.
I talk about this with clients when we’re talking about relationships. Often our struggles with other people come from misunderstandings built on beliefs that are standing in for facts.
If your mother/best friend/brother thinks that your soul is in mortal danger or your health will be truly compromised or your children will grow up irreparably damaged if you eat green gelatin then they’re going to act accordingly. Likewise if you think an occasional bowl of gelatin harms no one, you’re going to act accordingly.
All is well and good until you serve gelatin when they come to dinner or they confront you the next time they see you or they post a passive-aggressive link on your Facebook wall to a HuffPo article condemning gelatin consumption. Then all hell breaks loose.
We aren’t responsible for other people’s beliefs or for changing them. We are only responsible for our own choices and behavior. It’s one thing to set boundaries about topics of conversation or dinner menus or Facebook shares. It’s another thing to expect other people to change their beliefs for us.
Once we understand that it’s easier to find common ground because we’re no longer arguing; we are explaining.
When we stop arguing we stop threatening the very foundation of someone’s existence (because that’s what beliefs are).
“Ok,” we can say. “I get it. Of course you would be offended by my Lime Jell-O Salad at the potluck. Me, I find a little gelatin really makes my day brighter and my teeth shinier and I can run further and faster. But it’s all right that you don’t like it and I respect your opinion. Let’s agree to disagree about it.”
If you don’t respect their opinion? You can leave that out. You can just leave it with the last line, “Let’s agree to disagree about it.”
At least you can quit banging your head against the wall wondering why in the heck they’re so delusional. And if their beliefs are totally incompatible with yours — if their beliefs really do threaten the foundation of your existence — you can move on. Once you know that opinions can operate in our lives like facts, you might find it easier to quit trying to illuminate them.