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.
Early in grad school one of my professors said that our job as counselors means being the healthiest person we can be at that moment in that place with our clients. He said, “You may be the healthiest person they interact with that week.”
I began thinking about this in other contexts. Like I began saying to myself, “Right now in this moment, in this place be the healthiest person you can be in this conversation with tech support.” Or “Right now at this moment, in this place the healthiest person you can be while you try to get your child to see reason about cleaning her room.”
I liked this because it felt do-able; I didn’t have to be the healthiest person I could be all of the time, because that felt overwhelming. I took it one bit at a time, one moment, one place at a time.
Change is hard and sometimes so daunting that we can’t see the way to do it. We vow to stop yelling at our kids then they drop the carton of eggs on your just mopped kitchen floor. Instead of giving up and yelling, we can try saying, “What would a non-yelling person do right now? In my healthiest most non-yelling version of my self, what would I do instead?” If we forget and yell anyway, we can give ourselves time to think back and write ourselves an imaginary do-over then we can do that better thing next time.
When we’re arguing with someone (a boss, a friend, a partner) and we feel ourselves becoming overwhelmed with anger or fear we can tell ourselves, “I can be the healthiest person I can be in this conversation and what do I imagine this healthiest person would say? Would that person argue back? Or would she choose not to engage? Would she try to change this person’s point of view or accept our differences? Would she allow herself to listen to this or would she walk away?”
What would our aspirationally healthy selves do and say if we gave them room to do and say it?
There’s a lot I don’t know and knowing what I don’t know is a big piece of being a good counselor. One of the most important things I do know is that I can’t make sense of anything without context.
Because I work with kids and parents, people sometimes assume I must have hard and fast rules about what makes for good parenting but hard and fast rules only work on paper. In real life, we make decisions in the context of our histories and our current experiences. We are making big, well thought out decisions and we are making quick, on-the-fly decisions. Those decisions never happen in a vacuum so when people say, “Is this a problem? Is that a problem?” I have to say, “I don’t know. Tell me more.”
Before I meet with a child for the first time, I meet with her parents. We talk about what’s going on and we talk about what the parents have tried already. We talk about what works and what doesn’t work. Parents are sometimes apologetic or defensive when they share one parenting choice or another because parents (unfortunately) are used to being judged. But I don’t judge parents. My job is to understand them and understand their goals and to understand their children so that I can help them live out those goals and to support their children.
Let’s take spanking for a very heated, very emotional example. I know great parents who spank and I know terrible parents who don’t. I can’t really tell anything about a parent or about their child or about their struggle when I hear, “I spank my kids.” It’s just a single choice in a sea of choices so when I hear a parent say, “I spank my kids” I want to know more about that. Why? Is it a knee-jerk reaction? A considered decision? Under what circumstances? What is the child’s reaction? What is the parent’s reaction?
This is how I approach all of those hot button issues: co-sleeping or crying it out, homeschooling or not, time outs or non-coercive parenting. I want to know what these decisions mean in the context of that family. How did those decisions happen? How do those decisions support or undermine the family’s goals? Do the parents feel their choices are working for their children? For themselves? Is it time to consider new options?
When I make recommendations, I make them in front of a background of what the research says, what I know from personal experience and from talking to lots (and lots) of families and — most importantly — I do with respect for the child and family in front of me. I may push parents to reconsider some of their previous choices but I will do it with respect for the values that drive those choices.
Awhile back I was talking to someone who was telling me about her exercise-induced asthma. She described the feeling of her chest tightening up and her breath cutting off when she ran without her inhaler and as I was listening I was thinking, “Hmmm, isn’t that how all exercise is?” I came home and asked my husband, also a runner, and he said, no, that’s not how exercise is. He said losing your breath is nothing like having your chest close up so you can’t breathe. So off I trotted to my doctor who said, yes, I have asthma. Go figure. I’ve had this issue forever and just now got diagnosed.
I thought I was experiencing the same old thing everyone was experiencing and so I didn’t question it. I did shame myself about it a lot when I was a teenager (telling myself if I just worked harder! If I just made myself run through it! If I just tried more!) before accepting that I’m a slow and steady person who can’t do heavy cardio. Only now my doc is telling me with the right meds maybe I can.
Here is my point.
Sometimes our reality isn’t real. Which is to say, something that we think is universally true (Don’t all bosses belittle their workers? Don’t all partners shut down periodically and refuse to speak to their spouses? Don’t all children have falling down tantrums ’til they’re seven or eight?) may actually be a sign that whatever we’re putting up with could use a fix. But how do we know? How do we know that what we’re experiencing is not “normal?”
(I hesitate to use the word “normal” here because sometimes what we need to do is redefine normal. So for me, normal means medication before I do cardio. That’s not necessarily “abnormal” if you think about it in the context of asthma. Likewise some behaviors may just need a new definition of normal depending on what’s going on.)
I think one of the biggest ways we can know that something’s wrong and could use some fixing is when we allow ourselves to recognize our unhappiness or discomfort with it. At the very least, that’s the best way to know that we need help. I could have mentioned my wheezing to the doctor during my annual check up when we talked about exercise. I could have explained why I switched back to the elliptical instead of that Couch to 5K program I started (and wheezed my way to the seventh week before I had to quit — I could never get through the long 20 minute run). After all, I was sad about giving up Couch to 5K and that alone made it worth mentioning.
Someone struggling with her boss or her partner or her kids could call someone (why, a therapist springs to mind!) and say, “Hey, is this typical? Do I need to learn to live with it? Or is there something I can do to change it or make living with it easier?”
My feeling is that if something is bothering you, it’s worth checking out. What the heck, it might help, right?
I have this theory that most of us can only do one thing well at a time. I don’t mean that we can’t hold a conversation while we’re cooking dinner — most of us can manage that kind of small scale multitasking — but the big stuff, the life changing stuff, we really need to focus.
For example, if you’re adjusting to a big life change — grieving a loss, taking on a new job, training for a marathon, caring for a new baby — then that’s the one thing you need to do. Eventually you’ll be able to add some things in but at the beginning, while you’re getting your sea legs, that’s the one thing you need to do.
While you’re doing that one thing, you might need to let some other things go. You might need to put your return to school on hold. You might need to put off the kitchen renovations. You might need to forgo learning to tango. For awhile anyway, you need to get really good at bringing this new thing into your life, integrating it, and then seeing where you stand.
Now sometimes you have to do two at once. You might have recently moved AND you have a new job. Just know it’s going to be crazy for awhile and maybe put off those plans to get your black belt or learn to roll your own sushi. Look at the two things you need to do (unpack and learn your job) and decide which one needs to take up the front of your brain and which you can move to second place. If you make the deliberate plan to do that, you won’t get as frustrated with yourself when you’re still living out of boxes three months from now.
Pick a theme — ADJUSTMENT or EQUILIBRIUM — and work that theme. Instead of getting annoyed that your kids are crying every night for the old house, remember that you’re living ADJUSTMENT and think about how you can serve that theme with your child right that minute.
Likewise, if you’re grieving a heavy loss let yourself do that. Stop everything and grieve for awhile. Find a good counselor or a safe support group and rest your heart.
If you’ve got a new baby at home, just learn how to be that baby’s parent — trust me, that’s plenty. You will be growing in lots and lots of ways just by doing that one big thing.
If you’ve decided to radically change some aspect of your lifestyle — become more mindful, get deeper into prayer, begin an exercise routine — then let that be the big thing and make other choices that serve it. Instead of joining a book club, give that two hours a week to something that will serve your lifestyle change. Spend time meditating. Join a prayer group. Take a water aerobics class.
Very often, especially at this time of year, we decide we’re going to do it all. We’re going to go vegan and start running again and get more organized and read the classics and quit yelling at the kids. No, no, no and no. Choose one of those — just one — and try it from all kinds of directions. Let yourself live in that experience, explore it and let your other decisions be guided by it. If you want to change your relationship with your kids, job in the context of calming your mood (instead of running because you want to improve your time in the next 5k); then you’ll be way more likely to actually make those relationship changes. If you’re grieving a loss, don’t run to get away from your feelings. Instead run because you’re taking good care of yourself during a difficult time.
This doing things one at a time, it’s about context not numbers. It’s fully giving yourself up to that one thing. It’s nailing that one thing, integrating it to your history and your narrative so that you have the emotional, intellectual and spiritual room to do the next thing next.