Lesson 2: Look on children with compassion

Story A bright, healthy man seemed to get anxious every time he crossed the street. Some of his friends thought his behavior was odd. One day one of his friends asked him about it. He said: “When I was a little boy, my father was killed while crossing a street. It still makes me nervous when I cross a street.”

Reflect/Discuss Have you ever done something that did not make a bit of sense to someone else but it made perfect sense to you?

Reflect/Discuss Are there things that our children do that may not make sense to us but make perfect sense to them? Can you provide examples?

Story A mother reported to a friend that her 3-year-old daughter was simply trying to make her crazy. The friend asked for an example of what the daughter did. “Sometimes she leaves the light on in the hallway during the day. Sometimes she brings cookies into the living room even though it's against the rules. See! She's trying to drive me crazy!”

Can you think of any other reasons why the daughter might leave the lights on or take a cookie into the living room besides a desire to make her mother crazy?

Perhaps the 3-year old doesn't think about or remember the rules. It seems unlikely that she lies in bed at night planning specific activities to make her mother crazy.

A principle People—even children—generally do what they do for reasons that make sense to them. If we don't understand the reason, we can give them the benefit of the doubt, study their behavior from their point of view, or inquire.

Applying the principle

A family moved to a new city just as the oldest child was ready to begin kindergarten. Every morning the normally-agreeable boy fought his parents attempts to get him on the school bus. They pressured more and he resisted more. Given the circumstances, can you imagine any reasons why the boy might resist going to school?

There are many possibilities. They include the fact that the boy had been uprooted from friends and familiar places and was being pushed off to go to school. It was frightening to a little boy who already felt confused and lonely.

Every once in a while a little boy seemed to go berserk. He would jump on the furniture and run around in spite of instructions to settle down. This was especially problematic when mother was nursing the baby. Can you think of reasons why the boy might “misbehave” in this situation?

The new baby is a big clue. Often a child feels neglected when so much attention is being devoted to a little newcomer. The mother observed that the problem was worst when she had had a sleepless night carrying for a sick or fussy baby. She realized that she was cold and uninvolved with the older boy after such a trying night.

A family made plans to visit a friend who was grieving. The time to go was clearly established, yet, at the appointed time, the teenage daughter was nowhere to be found. The parents fumed and finally left for the visit without her. When they returned home they were upset. Can you suggest reasons the daughter might have been late?

The daughter sheepishly explained that she and a neighbor friend had been taking a walk when a widow up the street stopped them to talk. The widow is a lively, engaged, and lengthy storyteller. The girls realized that they were late but found it difficult to break away in the middle of the stories. Since the parents had been in the same situation with the same widow, it was quite understandable.

Give them the benefit of the doubt. It is dangerous to judge children's motives based on the effect of the behavior on the parent. While a certain behavior (such as the girl who left lights on and took cookies into the living room) may be quite annoying to the parent that may not be the child's intentions. That little girl is probably just trying to navigate life the best way she knows how. It is a good idea to give the child the benefit of the doubt.

With some children this is especially difficult. We have been annoyed so many times that we have developed hardening of the categories. We label the child as selfish, disrespectful, or irresponsible. Such labels create problems for both the child and the parent. It is more helpful to see why the child's behavior makes sense to the child. Then we can help them make better choices.

Study their actions from their point of view. A 2-year old boy started getting very upset every time his mother vacuumed the floor. She was quite mystified by the behavior. She asked a wise friend about it. The friend said, “Let's think about what's different for your son.” As they talked, they realized that the recent addition of a new baby to the family had changed many things. Among other things the mother had started vacuuming every day so that the baby could play on the floor. The mother decided that she would schedule her vacuuming when it was less disruptive to the 2-year-old. She also made a point of letting him know when she intended to vacuum. The problem disappeared.

Inquire. Asking children about their behavior is tricky business. The predictable answer to “Why do you do that?” is “I don't know.” Often they do not understand the question or their own motivation. In the next lesson, ideas on discovering the meanings behind children's actions will be explored. This is at the heart of Ginott's brilliant work.

Taking the principle home A feeling of irritation can be our friend. Just as physical pain may alert us that we have a pebble in our shoe, so irritation with children can alert us that our way of understanding and relating to those children lacks compassion. Think of a child who irritates you fairly often. Can you discover more compassion for that child by giving the benefit of the doubt or studying the child's behavior from his or her point of view?

Make a plan that works for you.

If reflection works for you, set a time for additional thinking:
If you learn well from wise friends or professional helpers, make a specific plan to get input from them:
If you benefit from self-help aids, here are some recommendations:

Additional ideas:

Both Haim Ginott and John Gottman's books are the best in this area. Both men take a compassionate view of children. More will be said about their books in the next section.
Mel Levine Myth of Laziness
Enjoyability: medium
Credibility: high
Size of contribution: medium
Mel Levine takes a compassionate view of children in this fine book. “We all are born with a drive to produce” (p. 1). He suggests that the “lazy” label we sometimes apply to children usually fails to account for hidden difficulties the child wrestles with. When we pressure the child, we make a difficult task even more disagreeable.

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