How good they have it (part 3)

Continued from yesterday and the day before

Habit and perspective

The other thing to remember about the context of kids’ resistance is what has gone before.  When children are young, we do everything for them.  For a while we do everything for them because they can’t do it for themselves.  Then, even after they become capable of participating in some things, we tend to keep doing a lot of it because it’s easier and faster.  Laundry is a good example.  Most kids could participate in laundry from a young age without there being much effect on the quality of the outcome.  Cooking might be a different story.  But in either case, their participation would slow the process down considerably, so often we don’t invite them to participate as early as we might. Then, at some point, we decide that it’s time for kids to be doing things on their own.  There’s an age when it seems as though they should be able to do things for themselves, and be willing to do them for themselves.  We get frustrated when they resist. But often our expectations are undermined by the way we’ve behaved up to that point.  Our choices and behavior may well have been born of good intention, or efficiency, or other perfectly reasonable components, but it can still undermine our expectations.

If you imagine yourself in a child’s shoes, this is what things might look like: you’re going about your business in the world, building towers out of blocks, listening to stories before bed, having meals put in front of you, being buckled into a car seat and driven around, having clean, folded clothes ever-present.  Later, your lunch is packed every day, your clothes get picked up when you drop them on the floor, your schedule is arranged for you, your books and toys are paid for.  But then, at some point, you sense frustration in your parents that you’re not cleaning your room without being asked, that you don’t seem to recognize the value of money, that you leave your clothes lying around.  You were just doing what you were doing, and for a while it was OK, and then it wasn’t anymore.

Kids don’t have the frame of reference for their behavior, or for our expectations, that we have.  It’s more difficult for them to feel lucky, in any given moment, that they have fewer chores than other kids, more to eat than kids in starving countries, fewer unreasonable demands placed on them, a warmer house to sleep in, more time with their parents.  They only have what they’ve experienced.  To them, it isn’t relative.  It’s just their life.  From their perspective, it may not even seem like something called their life, distinct from other lives.  It’s just life.

The practice of seeing things from the perspective of another gets something of a bad rap because it can seem as though in so doing, one might have to give up their own perspective, their own agenda, their own needs.  In this case (and probably in many others), you actually forward your agenda by trying out a child’s perspective.  When you imagine things from your child’s perspective, you can see that while she may not be thinking about the world the way you wish she would, her shortcomings in the responsibility department are not necessarily about laziness, are not personal attacks on you, and can in fact be addressed and managed in such a way that she becomes interested in being more of a contributing member of the household.

One of the things that particularly confounded and infuriated my mother when it came to getting me to help out was that, as though to add insult to injury, she would hear from a friend’s parent that I was so helpful, didn’t complain at all and even offered to participate in the clean up of snack or dinner dishes when I was visiting.  This phenomenon can make it feel as though the resistance at home is personal, a button-pushing designed for the purpose of battling a parent.  In fact, the reason I didn’t whine and complain about doing the dishes at my friends’ houses is that my mom actually did a really good job of pointing out how nice it is to have someone help you, and that if you enjoy something and appreciate what someone’s doing, helping them is a way to show your enjoyment and appreciation.  When I was home, I felt no need to express appreciation and enjoyment because I was just there having my life as I had always known it and assumed it would be regardless of how I behaved.  You could say it was because I was spoiled, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that about kids just because they get used to the original conditions of their lives.  And even if spoiled is the right word, it’s not fair to blame kids for it and take it as an indication that they haven’t learned to be grateful and appreciate what they have!

In our endeavors to give young people a good life, a better life maybe than we had, we try to shield them from the effort it takes to provide that life.  We talk about money and work and the complexities of running a household and keeping a family fed only when kids are out of earshot, or at least we try to.  We get impatient with them when they’re not helping with whatever we want their help with in the moment, but we don’t let them in on the complex choreography of keeping all the balls in the air.  We don’t want to burden them with it and so we don’t tend to communicate much about it with them, but then we also want them to grasp its scope enough to help out around the house.

We can continue to be annoyed, and wish that kids would just get how good they have it, while we keep insisting that they get it, keep scolding them when they don’t seem to get it.  Or we can acknowledge where they’re coming from; treat their lives and reactions as the complicated confluence of factors we know human experience to be. We don’t have to let go of our expectations of kids in order to receive them fully.  In fact the more we can consider life from their perspective, the better able we’ll be to inspire participation and even collaboration.  The more empathetic we are about where kids are coming from and the more we treat them as though they’re actually here on our side with us, the more inspired they’ll be to behave accordingly.