Thursday, November 17, 2022

Both Feet Forward

A therapist once came to our school to help the Middle School teachers understand adolescence. He explained that at this stage of development, the child is pulling away from the parents and teachers to assert her/his own individuality, testing boundaries and trying out new behaviors. So when we expect them to do something the way we want them to, it’s their job to push back. It’s natural and it’s healthy. It’s their job.


And that’s when a teacher spoke up and said, “Yeah, but what’s our job?” Boom! Many take the therapist’s analysis to mean that we should be understanding and excuse the kids for whatever they do. But this teacher was reminding us that it’s our job to hold firm, to make the boundaries yet clearer, to push back when they test us and say, “Thanks for your doing your job and when you’re a full-fledged adult, you’re welcome to make that decision. Right now, we’re in charge and it ain’t gonna happen.” 


The permissive “I want to be your friend” parent fails the children by refusing their job to be clear about what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t and being willing to back it up. The tyrannical “do whatever I say” parent who doesn’t stretch to understand what’s behind their child’s behavior is equally at a loss. (I’m remembering some of this dynamic in that film American Beauty, the way the child of the permissive parents and the child of the military father were both equally wounded and came together bonded by their mutual hurt. It did not go well.)


“What’s our job?” is a good pithy reminder to be the adult in the situation and give the kids something firm to push against. On the understanding side, “behavior is the language of children” helped me time and time again to not react impulsively to “bad” behavior, but to explore with the child (or adult) what they are trying to say that they don’t have the words for. While still holding firm that certain behaviors are not acceptable in my class, I can  show concern for the child’s impulsive outbursts that speak a language neither of us wholly understands yet, but can begin to decipher. It might be as simple as not having eaten breakfast or their cat dying or a more complex trauma that needs attention. It also might be something in the way I teach that doesn’t connect or a lesson that is too overwhelming complicated or too simplistic. Once we can name it, we can begin to work with it. 


This is on my mind as I encounter this push-pull dynamic in both family and work situations. In both talking to and writing letters to the people involved, I’m massaging one foot—wanting to know what’s going on inside them and listening deeply and affirming their feelings and offering some comfort— and holding the other one to the fire—making clear that they need to look at how they react to situations that passes harm or blame or shame onto others without taking responsibility for their part in it. Either one without the other is ineffective and keeps us stuck. Both feet together— one massaged and one held to the fire— seems a better way to move forward. (And then switch feet so they both are massaged and both held to the fire!). 


And might I recommend that we talk to ourselves as well from both sides of the matter?

Not excuse ourselves too easily and yet, understand that sometimes what we do is the best we can do in light of our own history of wounds and trauma and forgive ourselves. Not blame or shame ourselves too brutally and yet, hold ourselves accountable to do better. 

In short, to treat ourselves and others with a firm love, a loving firmness. None of it is easy, but without it, we’re hopping around on one foot. And that’s exhausting.


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