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 remember when I was in my early 30s and seeing a therapist to process my experience with infertility. At the beginning I had so much to say that I didn’t know how I would make it between sessions. Then after (I thought) I had said it all, I would worry before appointments that she’d be disappointed because I didn’t have an idea about what we should talk about.
I used to plan our topics. All week I would store up events or musings and I’d have them neatly prepared. I would continue to do this even after I realized that during most of our appointments we’d end up talking about something completely different. She’d ask about something we discussed the session before or in our casual opening we’d end up on a subject I hadn’t even considered. But I’d wrench us back around to the topic I had planned even if it fell flat because I thought I was supposed to.
I didn’t know then that it was more than OK to just show up. I didn’t have to have a topic prepared. I didn’t have to know what we were going to talk about. I could let the conversation happen organically and trust her to help me figure out what I wanted to say.
Therapy is a lot like writing. Sometimes you come to the page with a plan and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you have it all outlined and mapped out and sometimes you’re free writing whatever comes into your head no matter how messy and disorganized and ungrammatical it might be.
You can’t have too much of one or too much of the other. Yes, you do need to have goals and you need to pay attention to your goals but you also need time when you’re sitting in the chair riffing on whatever comes up.
You and your therapist are working in collaboration. You don’t have to come up with every topic and she’s not going to always lead the way. The two of you will discover what it is you’re working on through the course of your conversations. If you do too much editing (especially if you’re not bringing things up because you are afraid she will be upset or bored) then she’ll be working with less material than she needs. If you try to plan your topics because you’re afraid that she will be annoyed if you sit there blankly saying nothing then you may lose the opportunity to see what the silence will bring to you.
(Sitting in silence with a person who is wholly tuned in to you can be very powerful. Try it sometime.)
Therapy is collaborative creation and growth. Trust the process and give yourself permission to allow the session to unfold however it will.
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?
(This is an edited repost from my defunct personal blog, which is why it references other posts from four years ago and Lost, for goodness sakes, like the olden days or something.)
Malinda posted about this parenting advice from Brian Stuy:
We have never brought up, unprompted, our daughters’ birth parents. We have discussed adoption, conception and pregnancy, and other corollary issues from time to time, but I have never, without having the subject introduced by a daughter, initiated a conversation by saying, “Do you wish you knew your birth mother?” Or, “Do you want to know more about your abandonment?” I have always indicated a willingness to answer any and all questions (not just about adoption but about anything), so I am confident my kids know that if they ask any question we will try to provide them with a good answer. But the point is, I wait for them to ask. Those that force-feed their children the deep issues of abandonment, birth parents and adoption, risk, I believe, getting the kinds of responses displayed above. In fact, by presenting the reality of birth parents before they are mature enough to handle it, for example, I think we risk diminishing our own position as parents to our children.
I was watching Lost on Tuesday, which is chock full of obvious and less obvious adoption issues and adoption cliches and stereotypes and I was thinking about how deeply ingrained our presumptions are about “real” parents and changelings and lost orphans and false parents. I was thinking about fairy tales and mythology and thinking that our collective unconsciousness already feeds us these ideas. (I am typing this to avoid spoilers.) It doesn’t matter if they are “true” or not — they are part of our belief system.
So unlike Brian, I think that even if we never ever ever breathe an unasked for word about our kids’ birth parents that our collective unconsciousness is already, in some ways, defining our own position as parents to our children. And our kids need to figure that out for themselves, which I think means we should be more explicit in welcoming that discussion. Not because we need to sway them but because we need to hear them out (or at least say to them, “I am bringing this up because I will hear you out”) so that they know whatever direction they choose, whatever belief feels like home to them, we will love them and accept them and never ever leave them. Even if they feel more attached to their birth countries, families and origins than they do to us. They may reject the “blood is thicker than water” belief system or they may not. But they will wonder about it.
Brian also says:
They might ask at that point if they were born of their adoptive parents, and that would be a good time to answer, “No, you were born to a woman in China.” That is the type of answer I would give. But many use this opportunity to go ahead and answer questions not asked and not even thought of: “No, you were born to a woman in China. She is your birth mother, and she wasn’t able to keep you, so she left you at the gate of the orphanage.” This is the type of over-feeding that overwhelms most kids, and creates, I believe, unnecessarily emotional issues.
There’s a third response, “No, you were born to a woman in China. What do you think about that?” or “How do you feel about that?” or “I know that might be confusing. Do you have some questions about that?”
I mean, culturally? We romanticize birth ties. I’m not willing to say that this romance is more true or less true. I’m not willing to say that it’s a cultural bias we need to question or reject or welcome with open arms. I think it’s one that’s interesting to explore and for any adopted child, it is an absolutely vital exploration because it is a conflict she is living and she will need to make sense of it in whatever way she needs to.
This is why we need to bring it up. We don’t say, “Hey, my lovely child, do you feel so much more tied to your birth mom than you do to me? Since she’s your real mother and all?” Instead we can say, “How did you feel when so-and-so was talking about this thing that might relate to adoption?” If I was Brian Stuy in a closed adoption from China, I’d surely say, “Sometimes I wonder about your birth mom. Do you wonder?” Because I would wonder. And if I’m wondering, it’s not such a far stretch to think that the child herself wonders.
I do not think that birth ties are any more magical and true than love ties but I do believe that birth ties are rich with meaning. I do think that in a culture that romanticizes our genetic origins that those genetic origins have an important weight.
For example, gender has tremendous cultural weight, agreed? We can say that gender is a social construct but it does not negate the weight of it. We can say it is a figment of our collective imagination and we can choose NOT to believe that gender matters. Individually, we can do that. But culturally, gender still has weight and our questions and struggle with the cultural construct of gender is practiced against the beliefs that we are questioning. Which is to say, no matter how much we choose to believe that gender does not matter for ourselves, it does matter. Our personal practice of gender exists in contrast to the larger cultural construct. In other words, Lady Gaga owes as big a debt to Phyllis Schlafly as she does to Madonna.
As I replied to Helen’s comment on this post, I don’t like to play with my kids. I like to play with other people’s kids in a structured, time-limited way such as the therapeutic hour because mostly what I’m doing is observing; with my own kids I’m counting down the minutes until I can go read my book. I don’t mind occasional (emphasis on occasional) board games, puzzles, building or other task-oriented play but despite loving to play-pretend as a child, I never really liked to play-pretend with my kids. Oh sure, I’d attend a tea party now and then or “babysit” a doll so they could finish up an adventure but those times were rare, as my kids themselves will tell you.
Their dad is great at it. He’ll get down on the floor and move the little guys around and make the little guys talk to the other little guys but me, I’d rather stay over here with my book, thanks.
I may be lousy at playing but I’m great at talking. Give me a deep discussion or a quick conversation and I’m there. Ask me about sex, drugs, rock and roll and religion and I’m up for it. That’s how I parent — I’m about talking.
Their dad is less great at that. Go ahead, ask him something potentially controversial and watch him change the subject so fast that you’ll be discussing the weather without even realizing how well he’s deflected your question. But he’s got that playing thing down.
My husband is great at some things and I’m great at other things. And you, you’re great at things, too, just not all the things because none of us is great at all the things.
I know a lot of parents feel guilty because they don’t like to play (or paint or cook or whatever) with their kids and I want you to know that I am a licensed expert on this parenting stuff as well as an advocate for less guilt, more joy parenting and I absolve you. You are absolved.
Now your kids still need to play but that doesn’t mean that they need to play with you all of the time. If you like to play then go for it. Do it lots. If not? That’s fine, too.
There are lots of parents who don’t like crafty things (me, I’m raising my hand again) or messy things like fingerpaint or playdough (these I can do). That’s fine. You can farm that stuff out. You can sign them up for a great preschool where they’ll get lots of messy play time or you can look to the library for crafts or you can check out the rec center to see if they offer sewing classes for middle schoolers. You can enlist friends and relatives or ask if anyone knows someone willing to come teach your child archery or Minecraft for cash or barter. You can ask your neighbors if their fourteen year old will come over and talk Pokemon with your obsessed 5-year old while you cook dinner so you can listen to a not-safe-for-children podcast instead.
And you don’t have to play with your kids, or at least not as much as they’d like you to. You will probably have to play some. You will probably have to sip some imaginary coffee they make you or run around the backyard fighting bad guys a little bit but you can say no. You can be not into playing and super into other stuff.
It takes a village, this parenting thing, and the village can cover the things you don’t like to do so that you can really really really enjoy spending time with your child doing the things that you both like.