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.
I was reading this post by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, about loneliness and how feeling lonely makes us more negative, less likely to engage with other people, and altogether less likeable. We become “more aggressive, more self-defeating or self-destructive, less cooperative and helpful, and less prone simply to do the hard work of thinking clearly.” (This last bit is a quote from the book Gretchen was referencing in her post, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.)
I remember that when I was going through secondary infertility that I was very sad and that this sadness made me very lonely. Going through a personal crisis is like living in a bubble. You can see the people outside and you can hear them, but there’s a barrier between you and everyone else. People’s voices seemed to be coming from a long distance away, someplace where there was happiness and sunshine but I was living in this muted bubble where I could see the sun but not feel it’s warmth. I felt self-conscious in my sadness and found myself withdrawing from friends and family.
This is why I sought counseling. I knew I was in danger of isolating myself in a way that would not be good for me or my son. I could show up for things, sure, but the hard work of being present with other people felt beyond me.
Some people tell me that they are uncomfortable with counseling because it feels weird to pay someone to talk with you. But for me, there was safety in knowing that she could not reject me. The structure of our relationship — that I would hand her a check at the beginning and get 50-minutes of her time — was reassuring. I could be my worst self, my most selfish self, and she would still listen. I could be vulnerable and sad and she wouldn’t try to change the subject. I could ask her to lead the conversation when I was too exhausted by sadness to carry my end and she would.
That safety, that space we built together, helped heal some of my loneliness so I could be with my friends again. And even though I was paying for her time, I know she genuinely cared for me. I know this because I genuinely care for my clients.
I want to write more about that, too, how the boundaries of therapy is what makes the therapeutic relationship possible. Stay tuned for that, same bat time, same bat channel.
There’s going to be a lot of people quoting Mr. Rogers over the next couple days and with good reason. As always, Fred Rogers offers sound advice:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.
When scary things happen we look for reassurance that we are safe and that the world is not a terrible place. Our children need to know that and we need to know that, too. Here’s how we can take care of ourselves when big bad things happen in the world:
- Limit news consumption: This goes for everyone. The youngest children don’t need access to scary reports at all but the rest of us need to be mindful as well. If you find yourself glued to NPR or CNN.com, take a breather. Let yourself check in periodically (maybe in the morning and in the evening) but don’t let yourself become consumed with monitoring. The news will be there waiting for you; you don’t need to follow every little detail as it gets reported. You may feel guilty about skipping but you can’t help by worrying.
- When kids ask questions, ask them what they know first: Even if you’re closely monitoring media input, your children talk to other people. Ask them what they know and then help fill in the (age-appropriate) details. Emphasize the positives — the way the community has rallied, the people who were already there with medical tents for the runners who immediately stepped in — the world is more good than bad. Help your children (and yourself) see that.
- Reach out to your tween and teen: Your older children may not be asking questions. Check in with them to find out what they’ve heard and what they think. Be prepared to answer their questions honestly but with optimism. You can also help them feel proactive by finding ways to help. Does your local Red Cross need volunteers right now? Can your family afford to make a donation? Do your kids want to hold a garage sale or sell some old video games to raise a little money to donate? Help them find a way to be one of those helpers that Mr. Rogers is talking about.
- Make time for friends and family and other things that feed your spirit: It’s important that we take care of ourselves when we’re worried about things beyond our control. Coffee with a good friend, a long walk in the morning or indulging in some seriously silly TV with your kids are reminders about what’s fun and good right now.