Tuesday, 13 February 2018

3 Top Reasons to Forgive Kids Quickly

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Because February is the month of love, I decided to write all the posts this month about virtues. Entirely randomly, I decided to start with forgiveness.

Years ago, I took a lovely parenting course using The Family Virtues Guide as a guideline for the discussions, and apart from shaping my parenting overall, it altered how I think about children and people in general. One specific way it changed my thinking was through understanding the Fundamental Attribution Error. 

This error is so common in thinking and that understanding made it impossible for me, from then on, to ever see anyone’s actions as only related to my reaction.

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That is: when someone does something and I get angry, annoyed, startled or even elated, the intent I attribute to their action is in my head, not theirs. There are certainly people who are angry enough at the world to get up in the morning wondering how they can piss off other people today, but in my view that’s extremely rare. 

Mostly, people are doing what they do, attempting to succeed in their own life, with other people as background characters or afterthoughts entirely.

That is: people act out of a desire to meet their own needs, not to interfere with mine. Or yours…

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Byron Katie tells the story of how wrong people often are when attributing malice to others’ motives. In an ordinary day of minor joys and minor annoyances, she used a public toilet just as another woman was leaving it. As she got into the stall she saw that the seat was wet all over. Grumbling about the lack of care and concern for others, and what kinds of slob the other woman clearly is, she wiped the seat before using it… then flushed the toilet and watched it spray all over the seat. She laughed as she realized that the seat wasn’t wet because the woman had stood over it spraying everywhere like a kid with a hose, and she was probably not even aware that the toilet was getting the seat wet as she left.

That is the Fundamental Attribution Error in action: Byron Katie initially thinking of the character flaws in the person ahead of her, and attributing malice to her actions … while in exactly the same situation herself, she laughed and understood there was no malice at all and no indication of anyone’s character involved.

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When we look at the actions our children take and think “if she doesn’t stop that by the time she’s 31, she’ll be a criminal with a long history of convictions” we are using the Fundamental Attribution Error: reading character flaws (and a negative future narrative) where there really is no basis for worry.

3yos are narcissistic by nature: they lack the brain parts necessary to be able to comprehend other people even have their own perspective, much less that their experience of something could be any different from their own. So, when they bite someone, all they feel is the satisfaction of that resistance against their jaw muscles, and they have no idea at all that it feels different to the owner of the arm being bit. They really are the centre of the entire universe they can perceive.

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4yos have no idea at all how to predict the future, with most of them still completely embedded in the Magical Thinking phase where unicorns and Santa are real and it might be possible to levitate if they could just get the right muscle combination sorted out. So, when they throw the Tonka truck at their baby brother’s head, they actually do not know already that the truck will not fly on its own and swoop around the room like a bird. They really don’t have enough experience to know that gravity will work as predicted, every single time.

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Now, when the bite marks on her sister’s arm are visible in the portraits being sent to the extended family this year, or the baby gets a rushed trip to the urgent care unit for stitches or an x-ray, it is really difficult to remember that what we know is very different from how children understand the world, and it is really easy to attribute malice and intent those children remain incapable of experiencing.

Our adult understanding is not their childhood understanding.

What we know, especially what we know from experience (like that being bitten hurts every time, and that Tonka trucks can’t actually fly under their own power), they do not know. They lack experience. They lack the brain components necessary to do risk assessment or understand that others’ experience of the world is not their experience of the world.

So, the 3 reasons to forgive kids quickly are:

1.       Malice and intent to harm are outside their capabilities, and will be for a long time to come, so it makes no sense to hold them responsible for the results of their actions when they turn out to be hurtful or annoying –-it is simply never their goal to harm anyone or anything, and their results often shock and surprise them, too;

2.       How they think, and act, at this age is a product of their immature brain development and when they are more developed, they will think (and act) differently –-it really is not ‘so the twig is bent, so grows the tree’ –-because humans, unlike trees, develop new and different brain systems that function differently as they grow, what they can’t do when they’re young they become able to do when they’re older, and;

3.       Holding a negative view of our children’s current and future character lowers our expectations of them and increases our fear for them –-neither of which help them become more secure, confident, calm and curious people.

I will be writing more about the virtues of hope, optimism and future-mindedness soon, which will elaborate on why our expectations have so much power in our children’s lives, but for now I will just add:

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Our children live up (or down) to whatever expectations we genuinely have for them, and when we always think of their future in terms of what immature, naïve and inexperienced actions they have taken in the past, we unwittingly hold them down to the expectations we fear, adding unneeded anxiety and dread to our lives and theirs.

For this reason, the sooner we can spot our Fundamental Attribution Errors when they behave in ways that shock or dismay us, the sooner we can forgive them for the results of their completely innocent actions.

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Forgiving our children quickly is sometimes difficult, when we’ve learned all our lives about the importance of laying blame (and the vital importance of evading blame) … but blaming a child for the unfortunate (and to them, completely unforeseen) results of their completely innocent actions makes no sense and does no good.

Forgiving our children quickly is sometimes difficult, when we are being Momma Bear over the younger ones who are hurt… but young children who don’t know better (say, than to throw a heavy metal toy at another person) genuinely don’t know better, so holding them accountable for what they had no idea would happen is simply unreasonable. 

It is particularly unreasonable to label the child as a bully, a problem, violent, vicious or, as a woman wrote earlier this week on a parent’s list, Satan’s child … because small children cannot control themselves, predict what will happen, or understand how others will experience anything.

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Whenever I write or speak about this truth, that children cannot until they can, people nod in intellectual agreement, and then (because it is the nature of humans) remember all the ‘yes, but, when my 5yo…’ stories that they think prove kids really are capable of risk assessment, abstract reasoning and self-control.

Those stories truly are stories: narratives that match the narratives of the stories the adults told them when they were young, all fitting neatly together in that ‘if they were right (and they had to be right so they would be on my side and not neglect or kill me, so they can’t have been wrong) then I am also right that my child is wrong, not me and it is certainly not them wrong way back then…’ story.

That story was fiction then, it’s fiction now, and now the parents of today are no longer at risk of the dreadful terror from when they had to agree as young children that adults are right, kids are wrong, and it doesn’t matter what the truth was, it matters what the adults believe or demand the truth to be.

So here is another free piece about forgiveness:

Those adults were wrong. They won’t die if they find out and neither will we. We can even forgive them, because they also didn’t know any better, so they couldn’t do any better, and they were as afraid because those narratives are not ‘last generation’ new, they’re many generations old…

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Today’s parents aren’t being loyal to their own parents or even their grandparents, they’re being loyal to oral histories re-told (and perhaps mis-heard and mis-spoken) over dozens or maybe hundreds of generations, all the way back to when life was nasty, brutish and short, and the chances of your child living past 5 was about 1 in 5… so how any one under-5 felt or thought was probably not all that critical to the shaping of society over the 30 or 40 years before they’d die of old age, starvation or infection anyhow…

attachment-style parenting, forgiving, innocence, kids, love, virtues, values, Linda Clement, Raising Parents, The Family Virtues Project, fundamental attribution error, kindnessPerhaps it would help to remember that those ‘wise’ parents we are protecting and following from many generations ago were almost certainly illiterate and probably under 17 when they repeated what they’d heard all around them as they were growing up…

So, let’s also forgive them for not knowing better, and move on.

We have better information now, and however uncomfortable it is to use initially, it is better than that. We are better than that. Forgive your children their mis-steps, because they are children trying to learn to be adults just as fast as they can.

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