6/30/2010

Knowing your Children

It took me a while to realize this, but one of my primary tasks as a parent is to know my children better than they know themselves, and to help them learn why they act the way they do.

Young children are tiny, raw balls of emotion. For good and bad, they haven’t learned the control over themselves that we take for granted. Most of the time they do not even understand why they feel what they feel.

This can be hard to deal with emotionally. My first reaction to misbehavior that I don’t understand is to take it personally and ascribe it to capriciousness or malice. If I approach a confrontation with a child from this perspective, my goal will be to win, to get him to obey by exercising my authority over him.

But my job as a parent is not to win. My job is to cultivate good behavior, and often there is a better way to cultivate good behavior than winning. Maybe he is upset because he is hungry. Maybe he is over-tired. Maybe I’ve asked more of him than he is currently capable of (though as a rule children are more capable than we think they are). Maybe he needs something specific.

When faced with misbehavior, it is my job to find out why. And doing that is hard. It requires really knowing my children, paying close attention to them, actively trying to understand them, and a good deal of experimentation. I’ve been able to stop a fit mid-scream just by asking my son if I could give him a hug. Other times, a small concession on my part (that does not violate the spirit of the original request) or a little more patience than he ought to require has been enough to defuse a situation, calm him, and get him to obey. If I had been busy disciplining him for his disobedience, then giving him a hug is the last thing I would think of even though it was exactly what he needed.

To parent this way, you have to evaluate each of your children individually. One of my children will just exploit any extra chances I give him, in a careful attempt to see just how much he can get away with – so that is not a good strategy with him.

Learning to understand my children this way has also improved how I understand my peers. Human beings are complex creatures, and our behavior has complex motivations. But for some reason I typically insist on interpreting other’s actions extremely narrowly, assuming that anything I don’t know about their motivation is unimportant. Adults, like children, need more charity than I by nature want to give them – or would give them, if my knowledge were more complete. Just as my frustration with a screaming infant dissolves into sympathy the moment I realize he is teething, I ought to realize that conflict at work or elsewhere usually has roots I am unaware of. The best strategy is to always remember that I know in part, and to understand others with the charity that I would want to be given.