“I know my life is better when I work from the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can.” — Brené Brown, “Dare to Lead.”
An article with that quote recently showed up in my inbox, smacking me in the face. The thought that everyone is doing the best they can isn’t always my first tendency when it applies to my kids.
I don’t think I’m alone. Whether you tend toward optimism or pessimism, many of us can go to the place of not assuming the best intent from our children.
The combination of our children’s challenging behaviors, the expectations we have of them (whether realistic or not) and our busy lives can leave a bad taste in our mouths when our kids aren’t doing what we want them to. We tell ourselves stories or develop beliefs: My child is lazy. She never listens. He’s out of control. She can’t get along with her sister. They don’t care. He has no respect. She is manipulative. They are trying to make me mad. And so on.
Assume good intent
What if instead we took the perspective that our kids are doing the best they can, that in that particular moment they are doing their best with the emotional capacities, developmental maturity and skills they have? How would that change your attitude, your demeanor, your ideas of who they are and your response to them? How would that change your beliefs about them? Or your belief in them?
Consider your toddler who melts down in a fit of frustration after failed attempts at tying his shoe, your first grader who stomps her foot with a defiant “no!” when it’s time to leave a friend’s house, your tween who talks back because she is emotionally exhausted with the day’s social struggles at school, or your teen who secludes himself in his room with video games. Consider the empathy and compassion you may have if you assumed they are doing their best rather than screwing up.
Brown goes on to say, “It turns out that we assume the worst about people’s intentions when they’re not respectful of our boundaries: It’s easy to believe that they are trying to disappoint us on purpose.”
Another smack — and then a light bulb.
I’m not always great at maintaining boundaries. I ask my kids to do something. I don’t hold the boundary. I get mad at them for not following through. Sure, in an ideal world our children would do what we ask the first time we ask. But if they’ve never been required to do that in the past, if they’re distracted by the outside world or if we parents end up picking up the slack and just doing it for them, there’s a good chance they are not going to follow through.
Our kids are not going to be respectful of our boundaries if we’ve never asked them to be. It’s funny: I end up angry at my kids and find myself thinking they are “trying to disappoint me on purpose” when it’s really my problem for not holding a boundary.
Rather, if I hold them accountable and teach them the skills they need to meet my expectations, they will learn to respect my boundaries. Once again, it’s all about me and how I show up for my kids. It’s not about them. (You can read more about boundaries in my June 26, 2019 column titled “With strong boundaries comes freedom.”)
Sometimes it’s hard to assume our kids are doing the best they can. We see things we know they can do but aren’t doing. Think of the teenager who wants to go to college but isn’t taking the steps to apply, the school-age child who gives up on his homework before opening the book, the preschooler who wants her parents to do everything for her. It can really seem as if our kids aren’t even trying.
If that is the case, it’s important to take a step back and ask why. Why is my child not stepping up to the plate, not taking initiative or seems helpless? What are the fears this child has about talking to the teacher, applying for a job or helping out with the chores at home?
Could it be they have never been asked to stand up for themselves and thus don’t have the courage to do so? That they don’t feel capable? That they are afraid they will be criticized for not doing the job right?
If we can uncover what is preventing these kids from doing more, we can help them become the independent, responsible, resilient individuals we believe they can be.
And here is the crux. We have to believe that our kids are capable and instill this belief in them every day if we want to help them move the mark of what “the best they can” is. We have to encourage, give them responsibilities, then step back and give them a chance without picking up the slack, remembering that every time we clean up behind them we send the message they are not capable.
As Brown writes in her book “Rising Strong,” believing we are all doing the best we can “doesn’t mean that we stop helping people set goals or that we stop expecting people to grow and change. It means that we stop respecting and evaluating people based on what we think they should accomplish, and start respecting them for who they are and holding them accountable for what they’re actually doing.
“It means that we stop loving people for who they could be and start loving them for who they are.”
This week, step back. In any situation in which your children’s behavior is sending you through the roof, breathe deep and hear these words: “They are doing the best they can.”
Now, how do you respond? Can you love them for who they are at that very moment? Moving forward with that belief, over time, could change the relationship you have with your children, your children’s image of themselves and the entire dynamic in your home. It could, as Brown says, even make your life a little better.