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?
I think my son was four when he decided he had to be right about everything. Four is generally the time when kids find their inner sassy. (Some kids get there earlier; some kids are born full of sass.) Anyway, he was around four and suddenly he was always right and I was always wrong. He’d make wrong statements full of confidence.
“Mommy,” he’d say. “Birds can’t fly in the rain.”
“Sure they can, sweetie,” I’d answer, thinking I was still talking to my reasonable 3-year old. “Remember yesterday when we were outside in the drizzle and we saw that cardinal flying?”
“No, they can’t. Because the raindrops hit their wings and they crash.”
“But don’t you remember? We saw the cardinal. Let’s look it up in your bird book.”
“Nope,” he’d say, casually swinging on the arm of the couch. “I don’t need to look it up because I already looked it up” (said the kid who couldn’t even read yet) “and the book says they can’t.”
I’d catch myself in these arguments several times a day. Peanut butter isn’t made of peanuts. Target sells zoo animals. Daddy has the day off tomorrow. New York is the capital of Cuba.
I don’t know why it drove me so crazy but man, it drove me crazy.
“Cheerios are made of green cheese,” he’d announce, calmly eating a bowl for breakfast. “Cats are humans in disguise. You were born during dinosaur days. I can fly on Thursdays.”
Ok, I’m exaggerating and also I don’t remember what we were arguing about, which is my point actually, because the arguments — or at least winning them — didn’t matter.
It took me awhile to figure that out. For a long time I’d try to be reasonable and then I’d try to prove my point and then I’d get louder and soon we’d be glaring at each other, our day ruined and tear-stained all because for some reason I really needed my 4-year old to acknowledge that I do SO know how to bake cake and the ingredients do NOT include ground up birthday candles.
Four year olds are practicing being in charge and they are practicing their command of their growing vocabularies. In The First Five Years of Life, Gesell writes about a 4-year old who asserts that a nursing lamb is getting gasoline from his mother. Writes Gesell:
In a vague yet concrete way he knew that gasoline is a source of energy. Gasoline makes things, including lambs, go. Four has powers of generalization and of abstraction which he exercises … frequently and deliberately. … [However] we underestimate the vastness of his terra incognita. An intelligent 4-year old, while building a playhouse, was heard to say, “Houses do not have tails.” This lucid judgment was the sober product of an inquiring mind. Four has a busy rather than a profound mind. His thinking is consecutive and combinative rather than synthetic.
In other words, four knows what he knows and does not know what he does not know. Four is figuring things out and to figure things out we have to get things wrong.
When I argued with my son I was upending his process and really for no good reason. I mean, he’s seventeen now and he knows what cheerios are made of and that birds can fly when it’s raining. I can’t remember his specific wrong assertions because he quit asserting them. It all turned out eventually but I thought it was my job to teach him things even when he wasn’t interested in my teaching.
Fortunately when my daughter hit four I understood that it was better for all of us to just roll with it. I could respond to her statement, “The sky is purple” by saying, “Oh, is it?” or even “Tell me more” without even blinking.
I know, I know, it sneaks up on you. At one point your child is looking to you for Answers to All Things and next he’s basically saying that you know nothing. It happens at four and it happens at ten and it happens in the teens and I hear tell that adult children are awfully prone to correcting their parents particularly when it comes to new technology or the proper use of slang.
Here’s my takeaway in all of this:
- All behavior serves a purpose and often that purpose is developmental. Kids are supposed to get stuff wrong on their way to getting things right. If it isn’t a safety issue, see if you can comfortably let it go and trust them to figure it out. So what if they think the sky is purple. Who really cares, right?
- Sometimes what looks like misbehavior is really just behavior. A 4-year old clinging to a ridiculous belief isn’t actually being sassy as much as looking like sassy. Their initial assertion isn’t the problem, it’s the arguing that happens if we correct them. So again, maybe we can agree to disagree and skip the arguing.
As I say — often — parenting is not for sissies. Remember whether it’s your 4-year old or 14-year old who is driving you crazy, you can come to the Thursday night group Parenting Challenging Children for support, insight and ideas. Enrollment is ongoing.
If you are on Facebook or on Twitter or don’t live under a rock then likely you have been either witness to or part of the ongoing cultural conversation around the ALS ice bucket challenge and the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri and the resulting outcry in his community and beyond.
I was thinking about this juxtaposition today, in particular about the controversy of the juxtaposition. I’m not talking about either thing itself — people drenching themselves in ice water or a young man’s death at the hands of police — but about these two things happening at the same time and how people are managing the presence of two wildly different cultural events happening at the same time.
I’m not the only one talking about this. Orlando Jones is. And Digiday.com is. But I’m thinking more about our response to each other and what it has to say about what we need.
I have read (I’m sure you have read) racist arguments, tearful essays, hopeful blog posts. I’ve watched (and I’m sure you have watched) moving challenges, funny challenges (and of course failed challenges) and challenges starring celebrities calling other celebrities out. I’ve also watched (and I’m sure you have watched) videos of mothers testifying to the loss of their Black sons, video of people rioting, and video of people marching peacefully only to be met with violence.
I have read these things and watched these things because people have shared them on their Facebook feed.
For the most part the divide is person to person; the person who posts a challenge doesn’t post much about Ferguson and vice-versa. Sure there’s cross over but not a whole lot. (You might be seeing something different; I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.)
This is what I’ve come away with.
Life is hard, deeply deeply hard and painful and we all cope with it in the best way we can.
- Some of us really need to see the funny ice bucket videos and laugh knowing that it’s bringing attention to a good cause.
- Some of us really need to see people willing to engage in hard topics on fluffy social media sites, to witness their friends speaking out and risking censure.
- Some of us go to Facebook to escape.
- Some of us go to Facebook to be inspired.
- Some of us go to Facebook because we’re bored during an office meeting or during a toddler’s nap and we’re just killing time.
- Some of us do best with lots of information and discussion.
- Some of us do best when we can ignore bad news in the places where we play.
- Some of us do our donating anonymously and would never make a show of our donations.
- Some of us want to feel like part of a movement, to feel something exciting happening.
- Some of us do our political work off-line where we won’t risk relationships.
- Some of us speak loudly, passionately and use a status update as a rallying cry.
- And yes, some of us do things on social media to make ourselves look good without any real interest in changing the world. (Sometimes the world gets changed anyway, even if some of the people who are part of the movement are just phoning it in.)
I think mostly about how much we (each of us, individually) need each other (each of us, individually) and this is why it is so inspiring and so painful when our social media is not reflecting what we want to see in the world.
I get compassion fatigue. Sometimes when I’m having a hard week or I’m working with a client (or two or three) who’s having a hard week I just want to take Buzzfeed quizzes (by the way, I’m Fanny Price!) and read LaineyGossip.com. Other times I really need to see the passion in people whose values resonate with mine, to see their hard work and anger. I have definitely been the person posting controversial articles on Facebook and I’ve definitely been the person temporarily hiding a friend posting controversial articles on Facebook.
I personally think that the ice bucket challenge has gone viral in part because of Ferguson and because of Gaza and because of Robin Williams. I think that when we collectively get sad we desperately want to get happy and so in hard times our Facebook fills up with pictures of cute kittens and calls to action that are easy and that are part of being hopeful.
But I also get why the juxtaposition is so jarring and makes some of us angry and/or disheartened.
I see a clear divide on my own Facebook feed with very little crossover right now. I don’t pretend to know why that is individually (I have friends who are generally right in front of anti-racist rallying who have stayed mum on Ferguson; I have friends who generally decry public displays of social charity who are tossing ice water over their heads) but I think it’s because these are hard times and we are all doing the very best we can.
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 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 your 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’m a huge fan of parents supporting parents and I know that most especially when it comes to parenting kids with special needs it’s vital to connect with other families who can help you find resources; navigate your options; and support your whole family in your journey. The Early Childhood Resource Network+ operates in North Columbus and offers an equipment lending library, support groups and information. Next month there’s a Back to School event, which would be a great time to get to know this wonderful resource. If you’re interested in learning more, please contact Amanda Biel at 614-543-9000 x215 or email@example.com.
Special Needs Family Support Group
Brought to you by ECRN+
Join us for an informal monthly gathering held in an environment for families to foster connections and networking opportunities with other families of children with special needs. We offer a place to help families of exceptional children meet their unique challenges through advocacy and peer support. Typically our meetings are held on the first Thursday of every month at ECRN+ office located at 6555 Busch Blvd, Suite 112, Columbus, Ohio. Occasionally we will come together on other dates or at different venues. Please call to confirm next month’s details or check facebook.com/ecrnplus for the latest updates!
Parents, family members and guardians of children with special needs. Both YMCA Members and Non-Members are welcome!
Thursday, September 18th from 6:00pm to 8:00pm
(Note: Meeting held on the third Thursday this month due to back to school season)
JASONS DELI - 1122 Gemini Place, Columbus, OH 43240
(Located directly across from Rave Motion Pictures, Polaris Mall)
Parent’s night out! The kids are back in school! You did it and it’s time for YOU to take a breather! Join us this month for some relaxation & emotional support in the company of other families who truly understand the unique struggles and celebrations of raising a child with special needs.
COST & MISC INFO
First order of single soft drinks, coffee or tea will be provided.
Further yummy food purchases are at your expense.
Not hungry? No problem! Fellowship & Friendship – Always free!
No formal childcare is available but children are always welcome.
RSVP & QUESTIONS
Amanda Biel, ECRN+ Family Support Specialist
Phone: 614-543-9000 x215