What I’ve learned, I think, about helping kids (and others) in pain, in seven steps

bullyA friend’s teenager recently became the victim of ridicule and taunting. Not a little sarcasm or practical jokes. Brutal, denigrating comments that spread like a virus through his school. A scenario that all parents dread. No one wants his child to be the brunt, or hurt, or the prey.

For more years than I care to remember, I always thought a situation like this called for sympathy and protection for the target. I provided lots of both plus advice out the ying-yang.

I’ve gradually changed my mind. Remembering how my kids learned to walk, they fell plenty of times. Certainly I tried to prevent them tumbling out a window or down a flight of stairs, but I knew bruises and cuts were inevitable, and that’s the way they gained experience. Ditto bike riding, skating, skiing.

Our job as adults is not to insure children are never hurt; it’s to help them learn how to handle the pain. Not to rush in and defend them or solve the problem. Experience and thought are great teachers, even through heartache.

We do have techniques we can use that might smooth the path a bit:

* Some kind of positive action almost always helps the sufferer deal better with the situation. My guess is he gains a sense of control over his life. Again, we can help him identify methods. This turns the pain outward rather than inward, where it might fester and cause problems such as suicide attempts. Ideas: write a story expressing emotion, help another kid in trouble, draw a picture of the incident.

* Almost never does a casualty want advice. He wants acknowledgement of his pain, feedback on his perceptions, and assurance someone cares. This goes for adults as well as kids. How often have you told a friend what to do to get rid of the jerk she’s with? Has she ever listened and acted?

* Asking questions is almost always better than making statements. “What did you think?” “How did you feel?” “What else might you have done?” “What could you do if this happens again?” Then you’re using the incident as a teaching opportunity. Educators call this “the teachable moment.”

* Bullying, torment, discrimination, and abuse are universal. We can’t eliminate them. Acknowledge they can be learning experiences with positive results, as we gain strength and knowledge about human relationships. Such diverse resources as Harvard, the Marines, and business consultant Jim Collins mention crucible events in their work, the fires in life through which we pass and either melt or grow stronger and better. When we realize bad experiences can, indeed, help us, we may be able to pass this along to our kids.

* Humans learn so much more from failure and negatives than we do successes and positives. Appreciating this reality helps us deal with our kids’ pain. And stories about our own similar incidents (“There was the time someone called me four-eyes.” “There was the time I was the only one not invited to the party.”) can give subtle support to our kids.

* Because bullying, torment, discrimination, and abuse are universal, we need to help kids gain the tools to deal with them independently. We’re not always going to be around. Talking with them, researching resources, directing them to books, movies, and websites dealing with the topic are avenues for their adjustment.

* We all know kids learn from our examples and responses. We model our belief that positive change is possible, how to deal with rejection and failure, and the methods we use to move beyond and better.

Years ago, Rick Nelson gave the world his advice, once and always true. “But it’s all right now, I’ve learned my lesson well. You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.”

Hey, I take my philosophy where I find it.

Have we been fooling ourselves all these years? Failure may hold more meaning and value than success because we learn more from it.

failureWe usually define “success” as achieving some sort of goal. A sports team wins a competition. A job search results in an offer from the company of our choice. A contest awards a prize. And life in general, we gain more money or a bigger house or greater fame than others.

I’m starting to realize that I’ve learned the most from projects that I initially labeled as “failures.” This perspective probably is grounded in the decades I’ve spent trying to get published. I wanted to be a writer since I was ten years old. For about 30 years, I slowly but steadily published articles, nonfiction pieces in a variety of local and regional outlets, capped by a how-to book about recruiting and managing volunteers in libraries. Hardly the stuff of a Pulitzer or National Book Award. Since I always wanted to publish fiction, if I’d been asked about my writing success during those years, I would have rated myself as a failure.

At the same time I usually held down a full-time job in communications and public relations. It was during some stints writing applications for grants, then evaluating projects based on the final criteria, that I realized the expectation always was that we’d achieve every objective we’d listed in the original proposal. That defined “success.” This wasn’t always possible or even desirable. Surely if the people involved in the project learned about impacts, that was more important that claiming we’d met objectives. An example—if we hosted an art workshop for kids, and our objective was for each child to create three clay pots, surely it was more important that we leaned those children preferred paints to clay than that every child made his allotted number.

Evaluations with goals and objectives also are common in work plans. In fact as a government employee, I became accustomed to dreaming up annual evaluation methods, which usually changed according to agency fiat every few years, ungrounded in any kind of reality. And again, I seemed to learn more from ostensible “failures” than successes.

This same approach can be applied to raising children. Before mine were well launched into adolescence, I agreed with the theory that good parenting showed up in children who never got in trouble and did well in school. My eyes were opened to the independence of a young human when one of mine always had to learn the hard way. If my sole criterion had been my original standards, I would have written off the parent-child relationship as irretrievably broken. Fortunately I held on and realized both of us had learned and grown through the ill-defined “failure.”

Bob Dylan wrote, “There’s no success like failure. . .failure’s no success at all.” I’m inclined nowadays to apply this Zen-like approach. Arbitrary standards for success may be applied by others, but as the person on my own voyage through life, I’m trying to enjoy and learn from the process, not the result. Perhaps others can benefit from this perspective, too.

Is Good Enough, Enough?

Comedian Pete Holmes has a bit in which he says if you lower your standards for success, you feel better about yourself.  Rather than beating yourself up for not getting ahead in your career or making enough money to buy that fancy car you have your eye on, achieve small goals.  He uses the example of going to dinner in a new friend’s house and finding the silverware drawer on the first try.  Yeah! You can be proud that you know the American way of housekeeping so well.

This approach makes a lot of sense.  Yesterday, I cleaned half a bathroom. Today already I’ve flossed and brushed my teeth well before I had to run out the door.  Success!  My to-do list may be hundreds of items long, and I know from experience I can’t possibly complete ten percent today.  But I can delight in my immediate accomplishments.

Sometimes it seems we aim our sights so high that we set ourselves up for failure. Following close on the heels of failure are self-doubt, uncertainty, insecurity.  Then we don’t like ourselves much.  We often go through the same exercise for our partners and children, too, making them miserable in the process as well as ourselves.

I remember in high school and college every person was going to achieve some momentous feat.  One was going to be a surgeon; another, president of the US.  Several planned to take over the world of finance and become billionaires at the same time.  Too numerous to count were the best-selling authors, the world-famous performers, the wildly innovative artists sure to arise.  My personal (unachieved) goal was to lose 40 pounds before I ever returned for a high school reunion.

How much more fulfilling if my aims are simply to reduce the stack of bedside reading by a magazine or two, water my houseplants before they die, write a decent paragraph each day.  The ineluctable* reality—if good enough is enough, I just may enjoy my life more.

 *Ineluctable: inescapable, inevitable, unavoidable