I’ve recently finished a new book, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again, on the subject of reconciliation. Along the way, I’ve had a dozen generous friends and colleagues read drafts of the book and offer their feedback. When I gathered the first round of comments, my friend and former co-author Ellen Bass, a long-established writer and editor, gave me a useful piece of advice. She said, “Lay readers who aren’t professional editors can often tell you that there is a problem with your manuscript, but they generally can’t identify exactly what the problem is or how to fix it. In my writing groups,” Ellen went on, “I call this kind of feedback, ‘point and grunt.’ Sometimes people can tell you they like something or that they’re bored and don’t like something. But the problem is rarely what they think it is; the real problem might not have anything to do with the passage they’re pointing out, it may have to do with a transition you didn’t handle well two pages earlier. A lay reader can alert you that something’s good or that’s problematic, but you shouldn’t take their feedback literally.”
I began meditating on Ellen’s advice and I realized that “point and grunt” is what my kids do all the time. I’ll be driving Justin home from school and he’ll start crying and screaming, “I NEED PIZZA! I NEED PIZZA!” when perhaps what he really needs is a good cry. Or maybe he needs to say, “I had a really hard day! There were so many complicated dynamics with friends and I felt lonely and left out. I feel terrible right now.” But what seven-year-old can articulate all of that?
Or I take Emily, our usually eager swimmer, to her “Goldfish” lesson and she cries and refuses to get in the pool. She doesn’t know how to say, “I’m with older kids now and that’s scary for me,” or “I have a new teacher and I liked my old teacher better.” Or, “I’m not sure I want to be in the deep water today.” Instead she cries and says ‘My tummy hurts.’ Something’s not right, but she can’t articulate it (and she probably isn’t even sure herself what it is.)
Kids are generally very good at communicating that something is wrong-they readily cry, whine, withdraw, complain, act needy, criticize us, fight, have tantrums, act rude, uncooperative or “act out.” But they are much less skilled at identifying where the upset is really coming from.
Listening to kids requires a lot of detective work. When Justin says, “I hate having a sister,” he may really mean, “I need some time alone and I don’t know how to get Emily to move away from me.” Or, “My day was too busy and I don’t feel like playing with my sister right now.” Or, “Jared was mean to me at school. He really hurt my feelings and I feel too upset to be generous to Emily.”
If I were to take what Justin says at face value, I might try to comfort him by saying, “Yeah, it’s rough having a sister.” But then I’d only collude with him in the erroneous belief that having a sister is a drag. If instead, I dig deeper, and look beyond the surface message to what might really be causing him distress, I can help Justin identify what is really hurting him so he can resolve the underlying problem. Once he gets to work that out, Emily usually starts looking like an attractive playmate again.
An example of this came up just the other day. My mother, the kids and I were driving my 16-year-old niece and my brother to the airport after a big family reunion. My brother and niece were getting on two different planes, flying off in opposite directions. Due to extended good-byes, we left for the airport late. Then I discovered that I needed gas. Forty-five minutes later, I made a wrong turn, and when we finally arrived, the airport was incredibly backed up. As we sat in a huge traffic jam, it became clear that we’d cut things too close and that my niece might miss her plane. The atmosphere in the car grew tense as the minutes ticked by. My brother and niece grabbed their bags and dodging traffic, ran for it. All of us left in the car were on edge waiting to see if they caught their planes. And on top of this, none of us had eaten lunch.
Emily, from her carseat, began plaintively asking to hear a story tape. I said okay, figuring it might help the kids relax. I turned on one of her favorites: There’s a Pea on My Plate by Bill Harley. Justin started screaming, “I don’t want a tape! I don’t want a tape.” He grew more and more hysterical, “I DON’T WANT A TAPE!” He kept up this litany for ten minutes, driving Emily, my mother and I crazy, as we circled the airport, trying to get word if my niece made my plane.
The combination of Justin’s screaming, my worry over my niece’s predicament, and the bumper-to-bumper traffic had me wound up tight. But rather than scream at Justin to shut up (something I was sorely tempted to do) or get involved in negotiating over the tape-I stopped the car the next time we circled around to the airport and asked my mother if she’d hop out and get some food for the kids to eat.
Despite Justin’s insistence that this was all about listening to a tape, I recognized the subtext to Justin’s screaming: “I’m hungry. My blood sugar has dropped. I can’t handle all these up-tight adults around me! I’m sick of sitting in all this traffic! I don’t want Sonya to miss her plane. I’ve been with too many people for five days and I need to be alone! I can’t take it anymore!” It was clear to me that Justin’s sudden tantrum was not about the tape at all.
Circling about the airport once more, we picked up my mother and a big bag of food. Justin ate, ravenous, and his mood changed dramatically. We parked the car, saw my niece and brother off (each almost missing their flights), bought some cinnamon rolls, had a bathroom break, and finally drove home. After eating, Justin was as cooperative as could be, yet if I’d missed his cues, and kept the focus on “what to do about the tape” or on his “outrageous behavior,” things would have continued to disintegrate into chaos. Another reminder that it’s wise to look beneath the surface to discern what’s really going on.