On Compassion & Nuance

In the last article of the Training Wheels series, I suggested one way to help your adolescent who hasn’t yet overcome the Training Wheels effect – enrolling in ‘risky’ sports. Well, you may be relieved to hear that sports are not the only option out there. In this article, I will present one more solution to this problem – a tricky, subtle, nuanced solution that quite nicely ties together the challenging question presented in the Training Wheels series – how, exactly, do parents and teachers best support kids in overcoming the training wheels effect without belittling, being rude to, or isolating our children?

The answer comes down to being able to place a finger on the tricky definition of compassion, and the even trickier process of deciding what constitutes it in the moment you are interacting with your child or student. (Disclaimer: If you decide to embark on this noble quest, get ready to make a lot of mistakes and constantly need to question your decisions – you will never become an expert in compassion). As discussed in a previous article On Compassion, being compassionate isn’t always doing what’s wanted in the moment – it’s doing what’s needed on the long run. Because what’s needed in the long run is up for debate and sometimes completely unknown AND because often what’s needed isn’t pleasant in the moment (yes, it’s true, big learnings take work and adversity), deciding what actions are compassionate is dealing in shades of gray.

So, following the discussion of risk and failure from our last post, let’s start off by disseminating some findings from the literature. An article titled The Intergenerational Transmission of Fear of Failure published in 2004 attempted to determine the primary nurture-based factors that lead children to adopt a fear of failure. The studies conducted and conclusions drawn in the article can be distilled into two main findings: the first should come as no surprise, and the other will serve as the basis for our nuanced approach to compassionately taking the training wheels away from our kids.

The main result of this study can be extrapolated to an unsurprising conclusion: if we want our kids to be better people, we have to become better people ourselves. If we want our kids to have a healthy appetite for pursuing goals and achievements based on strong values rather than be motivated not to fail (and thus to not ever try), then we sure as heck better work on that ourselves first. The second conclusion, however, presents a bigger challenge. The authors, Elliot and Thrash, examined the roots of the Fear of Failure construct and found that it is not failure, per se, that is feared, but the shame that accompanies it. Because shame involves the feelings that come with a judgement from an audience (whether real or imagined) as well as feelings of isolation, it is an inherently relational emotion – it depends on other people and their interactions with us. Thus, Elliot and Thrash began to look for likely suspects in parent-child relationships that would cause shame – especially unintentionally – and they found parental Love Withdrawal.

“Love withdrawal is defined as a socialization technique whereby the parent withdraws affection or creates a physical separation from his or her child when the child behaves in an undesirable manner” This could take the form of the parent turning away from the child, giving the child a cold or disgusted look, refusing to look, refusing to speak, or speaking in a way that expresses discontent with the child, among other possibilities. The reason I mention these particular examples is because they seem to be the most common ways that parents unintentionally utilize love withdrawal, which in the context for which I write is the most pernicious form of it. That is to say, that those who read my posts are already trying to be ‘good parents,’ and we are asking the deep questions about what it means to be a good parent and making mistakes along the way (remember the Disclaimer from earlier). Thus, this is a discussion about how good parents and good people can unintentionally cause a Fear of Failure in our kids. How often have we gotten frustrated with our kids and slowly shook our heads to express that frustration? I know I have all the time with my students. “We presume that few parents proactively decide to employ love withdrawal as a socialization technique; rather, most who use it are simply responding to their children in a reactive manner out of their own deeply engrained self-evaluative processes.” Wow. We don’t mean to withdraw our love, we do it because our kids (and their successes or failures) are indicative of our successes or failures as parents and teachers. I should add a note here to be transparent, but follow it with my own subjective statement that says I don’t fully believe it: the two studies concluded that love withdrawal was a predictor of student fear of failure when it was used as a technique by mothers only. The same transmission of fear of failure was not found when love withdrawal was used by fathers. My feeling is that in the contemporary world, traditional mother and father ‘roles’ and ‘dispositions’ are shifting rapidly, and my suggestion is to err on the side of caution – if you are a father, don’t conclude ‘oh, sweet, I’m going to use love withdrawal all the time because it doesn’t matter!’

Let’s drop another heavy nuance into the bucket now, before discussing some implications: the roots of fear of failure are grown rather early in a child’s development, often before they are able to differentiate between a ‘mistake’ and a ‘misbehavior.’ Thus, love withdrawal in either of these domains early in a kid’s experience can contribute to a kid’s fear of failure later in life. As for adolescents, this reminds us that it’s important for us to explicitly differentiate between a mistake and a misbehavior when correcting them.

So what are the practical implications for your own interactions with your kid? To begin with, we need to work on ourselves – to become conscious of when we are unintentionally withdrawing love from our kids or students. Once we recognize that, we need to b able to practice vulnerability – it helps a lot to be able to talk about our authentic feelings and admit our shortcomings with students. What I mean by this is not that we need to take on blame for a student’s actions – rather, tell a student that they have a lot to work on, just like us. I’ll give an example:
I have a student who comes from a challenging background, has struggled with depression and anxiety in the past, and has the potential to be an absolute badass human being when she chooses to do so. She also has the potential to (and often does) go down the rabbit hole of interpreting everything around her in a negative light and being an all-around energy drain on the people around her. On Friday at our end-of-day community meeting, she was talking to a friend while a speaker had the floor. I looked at her, frowned, and said ‘shh!’ She chose to interpret that as me ‘hating’ her. Trust me, I fully believe that I am the one acting reasonable in this situation. But me allowing that wall that was just put up between us to simply exist does not do anything to fulfill my purpose: helping her grow as a human being. Nor does it give her a proper role model to act in the way that I consider valuable. Just because I don’t think I am to blame for that wall doesn’t mean it’s not my responsibility to deal with now. I’m the adult,
so I better take responsibility.

At the next time I could chat with her (Monday morning), I brought up the fact that there was a wall between us now. I gave her my interpretation of where it was coming from – and this is the important part – making no bones about the fact that I thought it was coming from her mind. I didn’t try to take blame for it. I just tried to convey to her that I thought she was interpreting some things in a negative light. The hippie-dippy stuff that I did say was this: I absolutely love you as a person. That’s unconditional – it’s not dependent on how you act or what you are doing. But, it doesn’t make me happy, at all, when I see someone who I love choosing to interpret things in a way that makes her more miserable instead of excited. Now, there is a lot of background (including building trust, listening, having this student read Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow, etc) that went into her being able to actually hear this conversation and approach, but I think the point is this – opening up to the authentic feelings on your mind and conveying the utmost respect and love, while not shying away from calling a student / kid out on being their best selves is, for some reason, culturally abnormal. But it works. It breaks down the walls put up by strange, misinterpreted, or unintentional love withdrawal, and allows real conversations to happen. If the student wants to grow, they will likely be receptive. If they don’t/aren’t, it may be time to call for further help and intervention.

Here’s another example: a father is driving his son to the airport, sending him off to college. The father and son have recently had a pretty heated debate – they have a difference of opinion on what constitutes a good life. “Between us hung some kind of curtain; I could feel it. Love, of course, certainly. But a thick fabric of years and difference, too.” The silence along the drive sparks a memory in the father’s mind of his own father, now deceased, driving him to the airport from his hometown of Dickenson, North Dakota. The then youthful kid, not yet even thinking about fatherhood, was leaving all of his own father’s hopes and dreams – that he would inherit the family farm and take some of the load off of his father’s daily tasks – for a new life in New York City. The City, of course, represented the opposite of his father’s vision of a good life, and the entire drive to the airport was punctuated only by his father asking ‘so you ain’t coming back then, eh?’ His own father couldn’t break through the social barrier imposed by his time and culture, to express unconditional love and yet also a disappointment in the choices the son had made, which reflected more on to the father than on to the son. “If someone had asked me ‘does your father love you?’ I would have answered ‘yes, of course,’ reflexively,” the father thought “but I would not have been able to go down into that love and speak its essence. Neither could he nor my mother. They were a practical, capable, decent people, but emotionally illiterate. Not one of us was schooled in the calculus of affection. It was my wife who would teach me that. ‘Well,’ my dad said as we drew into the outskirts of Fargo and turned north on I-29, ‘take good care of yourself back there, won’t you?’” The now father explains that he had an urge to say or do something to his father in that moment, but he had no model for that.

Of course, this memory could have made the father open up to what he was thinking in that moment. To explain all of the emotions and feelings and thoughts that occured those many years ago as he left home; to explain how he now understood his own father’s feelings at the time. To explain how he hadn’t yet ‘traded freedom for comfort,’ at the time he left for New York, and he now understood both his own reasons for leaving, and his father’s reasons for wanting him to stay. But instead, the father did what most of us would probably do in the moment: ask about the son’s courses in which he was enrolled; comment on the weather; comment on all of the safe and predictable things about which fathers can create small talk. At some point, the son starts similar small talk, discussing the family’s uncle. The father says “he’s a good uncle, isn’t he.” The son takes the first leap of vulnerability, “yes. And you’ve been a great dad.” The father let’s a few automatic responses pass, and responds “and as a son, you’ve been a huge pain in the ass.”

The point of this story is to highlight that the father could have just been authentic about what was on his mind, and to create a lack of difference by celebrating their common humanity – he realized that the wall between himself and his own father was similar to that between he and his son now, and this could have been an effective conversation. However, the father couldn’t get to that point because it was so foreign to him – and that was perfectly fine! Because the father ended up connecting through humor that – in one, single line – conveyed everything he found so hard to choke out in long-form conversation. Humor is a powerful conveyor of truth.

One final example: in an online article published in 2013, Ben Martins asked the question ‘Why aren’t we rude to grown-ups the way we are rude to children?’ He discusses the fact that our culture has normalized adult rudeness to children – we see it at the library in a hushed but angry tone: “GET BACK OVER HERE! YOU HAVE TO BE QUIET IN THE LIBRARY!” in response to the slightest infraction. “As a dad, I know that I’m a role model for my kids. I’ve always been careful to treat people respectfully,” Martins reflects, “ I don’t yell at waiters when they forget that I wanted them to hold the onions. But yesterday I realized that it’s not enough to just show my kids how I try not to be an asshole to the bus driver. I also have to recognize when I’m being an asshole to them.” His points are well taken, but I think that again, there are deeper nuances to explore. A parent who is simply annoyed at their kid and being rude to them from a place of annoyance is being immature. We don’t call that compassion. However, there is an unwritten code of politeness in American culture that seems to dictate: if you are a kid, you haven’t fully learned the code and we are going to teach it through yelling at you; conversely, if you are an adult, you have been grounded in this code and even when you violate it, you deserve polite respect. I disagree with this unwritten, subconscious code. Again, I default back to compassionate action. If a person – adult or child – does something that breaks our social code (ignores a giant line and just walks up to the front, brings a portable speaker to a library, uses inappropriate language in the wrong place), I feel that we have to make the decision on whether we would like to invest the effort into correcting that behavior, and that decision depends on the person and if we have a prior relationship with them that allows us to more swiftly achieve the learning (a total stranger may not take our advice in a productive manner). Once we decide to take action, it is the same either way – whether adult-acting-as-a-child or child – we remove contempt and rudeness from our voices because that is a childish response, and truly do our best to tell the person what’s up, assuming (at first) best intent. “Hey just letting you know there is a line of people waiting for the service you’re requesting over here – didn’t want you to unknowingly make them all mad,” “Hey there’s a rule about libraries that, as a place of study, it should remain quiet – I and most of the patrons here would be stoked to get back to quiet work.” And, an example from Brene Brown’s personal life when she was not treated as follows for using a certain word: “Hey just wanted to inform you that the word ‘gypped’ actually originates as an anti-semitic slang targeting gypsies – I wanted to let you know that I’m not offended since that’s not super-common knowledge, but I figured it would help you avoid offending someone who takes it as offense.”

However, there is a flip-side to this coin. Rudeness is a consequence of acting in a certain way. If we, as adults, are rude to our children because we are around them all-to-often and are just plain annoyed with them, we probably need to do some more meditation. But that doesn’t mean we can’t choose to be intentionally rude with purpose. This is a rare case, but worth mentioning – I teach in a school that has a strange community makeup – there is peer pressure present, but in general our community is extremely accepting of who each student is as a person, and the level of tolerance for different worldviews, clothing styles, etc. is very high. As such, we have one student who seems to be, just by nature, a total dick. Yes he talks back to teachers, but even more interestingly, he is rude to his friends, and they chalk it up to “oh, he’s just being Hank…” At one point, because he thinks he is entitled to do whatever he wants, he kissed a girl that one of his best friends was dating, and made it public knowledge enough that even his teachers (me) heard about it. And, his friend forgave him! What!?!?

Last week, he spoke out of turn during our community meeting, being rude to both the student who was currently speaking and the teachers as a whole. I pulled him aside, and laid into him, telling him in a very stern affect that although he enjoyed being forgiven over and over by our accepting community, the world does not work this way, so if he was going to be a jerk to people, he was going to have people be a jerk back, and not forgive him. He wasn’t used to being spoken to in such a manner, and tears began to roll down his face. So I laid it on further – “so every time I see you acting like a jerk, I’ll be the one to give you a taste of reality – that people don’t like it when you treat them like that, whether or not they speak up. I’ll be the internal voice of our community, and I’ll make you cry in front of our whole community like you’re doing right now.” I’m not saying my approach was correct. I recognize that it was really harsh. But I am saying that if you’re going to be rude to a kid, at least consciously choose to do it, rather than doing it because that’s what our society does to kids. Of course, I had a follow-up conversation with this kid, which is important to cement learning. He actually brought me a breakfast burrito the next morning without prompting, which I guess was his strange way of saying he got my drift, if only a little bit?

The point of these examples is to highlight that we, as adults, have responsibility to recognize when, in our interactions with kids/students, we are immature. After all, what could be more immature than saying “you didn’t do what I wanted, I’m not going to love you anymore!” Of course, those words don’t leave our mouth, but we do it with the look of disgust, the awkward silences where we won’t just speak to the student with an authenticness about what we’re feeling, and the lack of vulnerability we show when recognizing something like ‘when I was young, I did that same thing…’ The great nuance here is that we cannot cross a line and begin to take blame for problems that aren’t ours, or to not call-out and address mistakes and misbehaviors, recognizing that there is a consequence for these things. Yes a mistake means that you have to do the entire ten-step problem over again, that’s how you learn! Yes a misbehavior has a consequence of some sort – not calling out these behaviors and letting them become normalized leads to entitlement. Because entitled people feel that they deserve to feel good all the time, they end up going through life chasing shallow highs but never going through the hard stuff and heartache that leads to true fulfillment. Worst of all, they will put down and hurt other people to get those highs, if necessary. So letting kids get away without a consequence for both mistakes (small consequence – you gotta start over!) or misbehaviors (potentially a bigger consequence, but it doesn’t have to be) is not being compassionate. And that’s hard for us to swallow sometimes when we want so badly for our kids to like us. But keep this in mind: our kids will like us as much as they possibly can if we express our authentic selves with them, if we be exactly who we are and explain why we are judging their choices in the context of our own experiences, if we hold them accountable because we love them so much we will do absolutely everything in our power to shape their lives into contented ones, even when the shaping doesn’t feel good in the moment. That is compassion.

Brown, Brene. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Penguin Random House Publishing.
Elliot, A.J. and T.M. Thrash. (2004). The intergenerational transmission of fear of failure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: Vol 30 No 8 957-971.
Martins, Ben. (2013). Why Aren’t We Rude to Grown-ups the Way We’re Rude to Kids? Accessed December 28th, 2017 from https://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/why-arent-we-rude-to-grown-ups-the-way-we-are-rude-to-kids-gmp/
Merulo, Roland. (2012). Lunch With Buddha. AJAR Contemporaries. (This was the source of the story of the father driving the son to the airport).


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