The Danger of Wanting The Answer

right question

I get it.  You want to know what to do.  Your child is screaming.  Or throwing food.  Or can’t be consoled.  Or hitting you.  Or not eating.  Or not eating the right things.  Or crying every time you put them down.  It’s breaking your heart.  Or maybe it’s making you see red.  And you want to know what to do.  I get it.

As a person whose profession is about helping people answer that question, I’ve been on the “back side” of that “wanting to know what to do” more times than I can count.  It’s an uncomfortable place to be, because you want me to tell you, and then you want to do it, and you want it to work, and then you know what to do and your child stops screaming or throwing food or hitting.   Tidy.

I hate to break it to you, but that’s not the way this gig works.

In every consultation, in every talk, in every piece of writing I do, I try to communicate as clearly as I can that this is not the way parenting works. I go out of my way, I bend over backwards, I repeat myself:

“This is one idea.  Start here.  Try it.  This is an experiment.  If it doesn’t work, we go on to the next idea.”

I have a hundred ideas–that’s what you “get” by working with me (or any other experienced child development specialist or parent coach) personally.  Many many ideas, all of which have the potential to work.  Lots and lots and lots of solutions.  But little to no idea which one is going to work for your child.  Because your child is a person.  And–with the exception of when I get to work with families over a period of time in their own homes–I don’t know your child.  And neither does the author of that book you’re holding.

You want to know what to do.  It’s discouraging.  It’s frustrating.  I get it.

I teach you to acknowledge, to “sportscast”, to name children’s feelings.  You come back to me and you say “my child hates that, it totally doesn’t work.”  And as you are saying it, you are maybe thinking “See, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, because this is what she told me to do and it isn’t working!”  Okay, maybe you’re not thinking that.  But a lot of people are–whether it is about me, someone else, a blog, a book, a video, a TV show.  They said what to do, and you did it, and it didn’t work…so they don’t know what they’re talking about.  See?  That’s why you should never listen to the “experts.”  I know.

This morning I read the words of a frustrated yet curious parent of an infant, saying that there have already been times when they wanted to know “what to do”, and they just couldn’t find it.  Right.  It seems like it should be easy like that.  Your child is screaming or won’t sleep or seems really uncomfortable or doesn’t seem to be interested in any toy for longer than five seconds and it seems like you should be able to pick up a book or call someone and find out what to do.  It does seem that way.  That would only be fair.

But it doesn’t work that way.

The tagline of my consulting business, Visible Child, is “As a matter of fact, they do come with instructions.”  I’ve gotten feedback from a lot of people that when they read it, they think that it’s a marketing strategy, that I’m saying that I, as a child development specialist and parent coach, have the instructions, so if you hire me, or follow me, or read my blog, you will get those instructions.   A lot of people would be wrong. That’s not what it means at all.

Of course, the tagline references the most common exasperated complaint or plea or rationalization of parents: “Well, they don’t come with instructions!” or “Too bad kids don’t come with a manual, eh?”  Well, that’s our first point of disagreement.  I am absolutely, indelibly, 150% convinced that children do come with instructions, even with a manual. Every child.  Right at birth.  A manual.  That goes from day one to adulthood.  Yeah.  Really.  The thing is:  They Have It.  Not me, not your pediatrician, not your baby class leader, not any one of the thousands of books that are on the shelf in the overgrown parenting section of your local bookstore.

The answers are not on the web, not in a discussion group, and in all likelihood, not even in your own “intuition,” which is most often simply a replication of how you were parented.   I mean, it’s possible.  Maybe you were parented in an absolutely amazing way.  Lucky you!  Or maybe you just have some really kickass intuition–some people do–that answers all of your questions for you and when you follow it, you get all of the results that you’re after.  That could be.  It’s not something I see very often, but it’s possible.

Don’t misunderstand me here.  I’m not saying to discard intuition; it’s a really important part of parenting, trusting ourselves and what we know is right for our child.  But sometimes, it takes more conscious thought than that.  Sometimes we want to know what to do, and we really want or need someone else to tell us.  I know.  I get it.

Your child has the instructions.

This is why the books and the advice don’t work.  They’re not wrong.  The people who say them have found that they work for many children, so they’re offering you those ideas, in case they work for you.  But they might not.  The advice isn’t wrong.  But it might be wrong for your child.  Or for you.

Which (drumroll please) means that you have to think for yourself, and you have to think critically. You have to build your tolerance for ambiguity, for not having the right answer.  Maybe that’s not you (you wouldn’t be alone).  Maybe you’re used to looking up or finding the right answer, and fixing things, a process that has become increasingly easier in the age of YouTube and blogs and Siri and Google.  Maybe you’re a person who went through the type of schooling in which there was always a right answer, and the goal was to find that right answer, and like so many others, you were shaped by that culture, such that you think that there is a right answer to every question, a “best” choice from among the multiple choice options.  And there you sit, #2 pencil in hand, agonizing about whether it’s A or C or “A and C.”  They all sound plausible.  But which one is right?

It’s a tough place to be.

If there is one thing I can say with authority, after 40 years in this field, it is this:  Parenting (and teaching) is much MUCH more difficult for people who have a hard time with ambiguity and who feel that there is a “right answer.”   This is a place where worlds collide.

A little story will help.  Stories always help.  I love stories.

When I was growing up, there was no trait or skill or value that was more highly prized than critical thinking.  And when I say critical thinking, I mean the “Extreme Sports” version of critical thinking.  Question Everything.  Intellectual argument as a way of life.  Take things apart again and again and again and then turn them over and take them apart three more ways.   Nothing is true if it cannot withstand intense scrutiny.  Opinions are not facts.  If a person cannot defend their position–and do so with passion and persuasiveness–then their position is faulty.  There can never be an answer because there are always ten answers for every question–and more importantly, ten questions for every answer.  Like I said, Extreme Sports version.  And like all of us, I remain the product of my upbringing.  Don’t get me wrong, I also got a whole bunch of stuff I wish I hadn’t gotten, but this is one thing that I did get that I value highly, and which I have passed on to my daughter.  Question everything.  No exceptions. Especially that which seems ideal or beyond question.

Yeah.  I’m a blast at parties.

So, one of the things I never realized or appreciated about my mother was how conscious her decisions were.  Or maybe they weren’t.  Maybe she really did have a lot of the aforementioned kickass intuition, and these things came naturally to her.  That’s definitely possible, especially since I can’t see my mother poring over endless books and music saying “Yes!  This is what I’ll read to her because it has the right message!”  No, I’m quite sure it wasn’t like that.  It was more like picking up a book at a yard sale, glancing through it and saying “Yeah, that’s a good one”, paying a dime for it, bringing it home, and leaving it around.  Well, whatever.  She was unconsciously conscious, I think.  Wherever it came from, it was amazingly consistent.

So, this morning, when I was reading and thinking about parents who “want to know what to do,” I thought of two books from my childhood, and the messages that they were supposed to be sending, and how powerfully those messages both affected me and reinforced my family’s values.  Because, you know, good children’s literature does carry messages.  We never discussed any of those messages, mind you.  No one ever sat down and said “What do you think this book is about?” or “This book makes me think about….”  My parents didn’t reinforce or discuss or teach me the moral lessons of the picture books that we read.  They trusted–again, unconsciously–that stories teach for themselves, that kids are smart, and they get these things, whether we discuss them or not.  I think the same thing, for what it’s worth.  No need to beat them over the head with the meaning.  They get it.

Now here’s the tricky part, because you want to know what the books are.

(deep breath)

I grew up in the 1960’s.  We read a lot of books that today would be considered wildly “politically incorrect.”  Books that have their roots in racism–in images, in text, in language, even in message.  Stories that have violent imagery that many of us would now consider inappropriate for our children.  Somehow, I didn’t take those messages from them, not even once.  Again, it’s that trust thing.  And historical context, if you will.  But it’s still true that these books shaped my thinking (I am a HUGE believer in the power of children’s literature in shaping values) and I can’t tell you what the books were without…well…telling you what they were.  So here goes.  I’m not suggesting you get these books or that you accept the racism inherent in them, I’m just telling you what they were, and that I read them hundreds of times (and loved them).  Okay?  Okay.

The first one I thought of this morning was The Five Chinese Brothers, a book published in five chinese brothers1938.  If you don’t know the story and want to read more about it, I recommend this article, which does a bang up job of both summarizing the plot and addressing its lesson, and proclaims this book the very best children’s book on deception.  You see, if you’re going to teach your children to be critical thinkers, you have to teach them about deception, about trickery, about skepticism, even about cynicism.  There are many versions and perspectives on what the moral lesson of the book actually is, but my takeaway is pretty simple: Things are not always what they appear, and nothing is as simple as it first seems.  There are always stories unseen, factors not taken into consideration.  Don’t be fooled–and recognize that sometimes you will be fooled, even when you think you know the right answer.

But the one that stuck out even more for me in this morning’s discussion–it always comes into my head in every discussion about “what’s the right answer?epaminondas” in parenting, and especially when people come back to me and say that they tried my advice and I was wrong or it didn’t work–is this one:  Epaminondas and his Auntie, originally published in 1911.  My copy looked exactly like this…from 1938.  Yes–again–arguably very racist images, messages, and text by today’s standards, a book that is seen as highly objectionable by many scholars. Again, somehow I never absorbed anything from this book about race, personally.  I don’t know why–maybe it was the strong parallel messages about social justice and civil rights and treating everyone with dignity that I got through other books and especially from the political folk music that surrounded me at the same time.  I don’t know.  I’m going to ask you set those things aside for a moment, as hard as it is for some of epossumandusyou to do.  Or if you just can’t, then follow along with this book’s more “up to date” replacement–the one that I read to my daughter–in which Epaminondas (the boy) becomes Epossumondas (a possum).  Same story, though.  In this book, a “child” is given instructions for how to carry something home, i.e. if you’re trying to bring home butter when it’s hot outside, you don’t keep it under your hat, you keep dipping the butter in cold water (so that it doesn’t melt).  In a patterned way, the child then takes the clear and literal instructions given for each object and applies those instructions to the next item that he brings home; when he melts the butter, and his aunt tells him that he should have dipped it in water to keep it cool, he listens…and then the next day, when he brings a puppy home, he dips it in the water repeatedly.  The pattern repeats…she tells him she should have put the puppy on a leash…and the next day, he brings home a loaf of bread, dragging it by a leash.  You get the idea.

Of course, the messages I want to speak of here are two (again, putting aside the damaging racial stereotype messages for a moment).  First, it speaks to the literal nature of early childhood–it actually teaches us about child development (!!).  This is how young children see the world.  You give them an instruction, and they apply it–they do not understand the intricacies or context, they do not make extrapolations and adjustments.  This is how young children’s brains work.  We have all encountered our children doing things we do not want them to do, because we told them to do it in a different context–these are things that young children do not understand.  So there is something for us to learn  in there.

And secondly–and coming back to the essence of this post–there is the issue of following “the right answer” whether it applies or not.  Yes, this is something young children do, by virtue of their brain development.  But we, as adults, do not have those cognitive limitations.  We can think “outside the box.”  We can adjust, we can think flexibly, we can see what a situation or a child needs, and adapt.  We can weigh what is working and make necessary adjustments.  And yet sometimes, inexplicably, we don’t.  We say it all the time: “I’m just not good at that–I like to know what to say.”  I know.  I get it.  Parents come to the groups that I run, and they say that they are acknowledging their children’s feelings by reflective listening and that it just makes the children angry–it “doesn’t work!” (with the “but you said it would work!” implied.).

Here’s the deal.  If you are using reflective listening or sportscasting or narration or active listening  (or the same idea by any of its many other names) and it’s not working….stop doing it.  You’re bringing the puppy home and dipping it in the water.  You’re bringing the bread home on a leash.  You’re listening to the instructions and not to the child.  Your child has the instructions–they can teach you what works.   Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the reflective listening–maybe it still would work, but it’s not sounding or feeling authentic (and maybe it’s not authentic!), so it sounds to your child like something someone told you to say, and not like YOU.   Children respond when we are ourselves–if we try to sound like someone else, the strategies never work.  Maybe your timing is off.  Or maybe your child is a person who does not like to be spoken to when they are upset, and what is really needed is to respect their personal space in that regard, and talk with them (if necessary) later.  Maybe you’re using a strategy that is designed for a toddler with a five-year-old and they hear it as insulting and condescending (this happens more than you might imagine.)  Maybe you’re doing it because it’s the “right thing to do”, but inside, you are seething and you really want to yell.  It’s a tough truth, but kids are omniscient–they “hear” how you feel, not what you say, so if you say the right thing but you are screaming inside, they hear the screaming…and then you think the words aren’t working.  The words are working fine–your emotional regulation might need a tune-up.

These maybes could go on.  Like I said, there are ten answers for every question, and ten questions for every answer.

I do get it.  You want to know what to do.  You want to be effective, compassionate, respectful, patient…perfect. You want the answer. No such thing.

You can’t find the what to do in my groups or in a book or from another parent or from your pediatrician because the books weren’t written about your child–or about you.  They don’t have the instruction manual–your child does.  The answers are in your interaction–your child, even in infancy, will tell you when you have hit a home run, and they will tell you when you have struck out.  If you keep trying–and listening, with all your presence and energy–you’ll figure it out.  Together.



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