My youngest son, who just finished his first year of college in the Bay area, called the other day upset with a situation at work.
He works at the local big-box store, and there was a misunderstanding involving a co-worker and his manager. It was unfair, he said. He was right, and they were wrong.
I listened, offered a few bits of advice and let him know I was sure he’d be able to work it out, because he always does.
Of course, my heart wanted to offer more — to fly down there and get to the bottom of this injustice against my son. But, he’s an adult, living 800 miles away, and in the end, he really should, and could, work it out for himself.
As a teacher, one of my favorite books to read my students was, “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster. It’s a fun fantasy about a boy named Milo traveling a magical kingdom built on themes of words and numbers.
In one vignette, Milo meets Alec Bing, a boy who has the unique characteristic of having started his life at the height he will eventually be, and growing “down,” until his feet finally touch the ground. For Alec, everything in life always looks the same from his vantage point, and he finds it odd that Milo grows from the ground up — that he will always see things differently. It’s whimsical, but a nice lesson for kids (and one I always try and remember). Our points of view are fed by the passage of time, our emotions, life experiences and our physical well-being — which can change on a daily basis. And like an iceberg, most of what makes us act and react is unseen by others.
Occasionally, my children would come home from school upset or frustrated (as most do). Inevitably, it was a story involving an injustice from a peer, coach or even a teacher. The details could be vivid and, sometimes, troubling. “That’s outrageous!” I’d say. My impulse would be to call the school right then, or fire off an email to fix the situation, and advocate for my son who was gravely wronged.
Instead, I would try and remember to pause, take a breath and consider that the giant iceberg below might be feeding this situation, and my son’s response to it. What he was bringing to me was likely being filtered through his 9- or 12- or 17-year-old eyes.
We all have that filtered perspective. Whether we are replaying and retelling a disagreement with our spouse or a conflict at work, we must know that we are subconsciously filtering out details, telling it from our point of view — often steering it to keep ourselves in the lane of righteousness. I know I do. It’s not until we sit with the other person to discuss it calmly, and share perspectives, that we can see what we missed.
Helping our children navigate these kinds of situations, and keep ourselves sane in the process, involves taking the time to help them look at things from multiple perspectives. To turn around, step up a little higher, or stoop down a bit to see what things look like from a lower stance.
So, when my sons would complain about a teacher, rather than pick up the phone to solve it for them, I would remember to pause, listen, validate their feelings and ask questions. “That sounds frustrating.” “How are the other students responding?” “Have you talked to him yet?” “If I asked her about it, what might she have to say?” Finally, I’d ask my son what he wanted me to do with it. “Would you like me to set up a meeting with her, or would you like to handle this yourself?” “What’s your plan?”
And then I’d let it go, but check in, and monitor. If I was really concerned, I might email the person to give them a “head’s up,” a nudge on my son’s point of view. “This is just his perspective and I’ve encouraged him to talk to you about it. Please let me know if there is anything I’m missing.”
As parents, we want so much to keep the roadway clear of obstacles for our children, running into traffic to remove things, and untangle them when they get caught. We know, of course, that we can’t and won’t always be there, and they will have to learn to navigate things themselves. In the end, I’ve found that my kids were not looking for me to jump in and solve these conflicts for them, but to simply listen, and maybe give them the tools to try and solve it themselves.
And when they did solve it, they often came away better connected with that person, and with a clearer understanding of the initial situation. As well, the person who had been the adversary often saw my child differently thanks to the process. There came a sense of pride and confidence, and I was able to say, “I knew you could handle this, but let me know if you ever need me to do anything.”
My sons are all grown and out of the nest, and even though their feet have been on the ground for a long time, their perspectives are ever-changing. From my vantage point, I would do things vastly different than they are now (Would I ever!). But I’m not 19, or 22, or 25 anymore. And thank goodness I had the opportunity to blunder through those years, because the struggle then was necessary to give me the view I have today.
Warren Read is the associate principal at Sakai Intermediate School/Wilkes Elementary and a Bainbridge Youth Services Board Member.