Understanding, Being Understanding

"If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own." So goes one of Dale Carnegie's many "one secrets to success," but it's a good 'un. Having a three-year-old is a reminder of how important this advice is every day.

A three-year-old is still working to learn how to express themselves. Beyond that, they're still struggling to understand what it is they want to express. They don't know what is going on in their mind, and they don't know what's going on in yours. Yet they have a hint of both. A three-year-old can be amazingly sensitive and caring one minute, and totally self-absorbed the next.1

That's where "getting the other person's point of view" becomes beautifully circular. If I can get my son's point of view, and help him articulate it, then he will begin to understand how to describe how he feels. The more he can describe and understand how he feels, the better he can manage how he feels, and the better he can understand how others feel. The better he can understand how others feel, the better he can both cope ahead for feelings he know will be stimulated, and the better he can connect and make friendships.

Understanding Emotions

The Whole-Brain Child advises parents to "take time to ask kids how they feel, and help them be specific, so they can go from vague emotional descriptors like "fine" and "bad" to more precise ones, like 'disappointed,' 'anxious,' 'jealous,' and 'excited.'" Labeling emotions is tremendously powerful, especially for a toddler:

  • A toddler may not know what they feel, just that they're in distress.
  • A toddler may not know why they feel an emotion. Labeling can help begin a conversation about emotion.
  • When in a distress state, the more primitive parts of the brain are more activated, and the prefrontal cortex - the seat of our rational and creative processes - can be bypassed. Labeling activates and involves our prefrontal cortex.
  • Toddlers can be unclear of causes of, and solutions to, distress. Labeling can begin a conversation that teases these out.

Our ability to contribute to this as parents requires what the authors of The Whole-Brain Child call "mindsight".2 As they put it: "the simplest meaning of Mindsight comes down to two things: understanding our own mind as well as understanding the mind of another." Or, in other words:

Insight + Empathy = Mindsight

One of the biggest challenges for toddlers in gaining Mindsight is simply the lack of vocabulary for what's going on in their brain. Yet, we know that being able to put a name to emotions makes them more manageable. As a parent, one of the things I can do best is help my child explicitly name his emotions. Implicit emotions are uncontrollable, but explicit ones can be discussed and managed.

The Whole-Brain Child recommends storytelling as a way to make emotions explicit, putting words to your child's experience together. When my son is crying, I always make it a priority to talk about how he's feeling. The steps I have learned to follow are, roughly:

  1. I get into the specific emotion he's feeling: "Are you sad? Angry?"
  2. I try to get a general cause of the feeling: "Are you angry about the TV? Going to bed?"
  3. Then I try to target further: "Are you angry because it's time to stop watching TV, or because Daddy turned off the TV?"
  4. I try to make the desired outcome explicit: "Did you want to turn off the TV yourself?"
  5. Finally, I try to get my son to express how he feels: "Can you say 'I'm angry, Daddy, because I wanted to turn off the TV?"

We don't always get through these steps — he's often in what The Whole-Brain Child calls a "reactive state of mind" rather than a "receptive state of mind," but we almost always get through #3, and usually through #4. And he does know, for sure, what it is he's feeling, and the differences between emotions.

Understanding Others

When one can understand what is coming from inside oneself, one has gone down the first step of understanding what others want. Dale Carnegie again:

Why talk about what we want? That is childish. Absurd. Of course, you are interested in what you want. You are eternally interested in it. But no one else is. The rest of us are just like you: we are interested in what we want. So the only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.

Right now, at just three, my son very much plays next to his friends more than he plays with them. That's developmentally appropriate, but it's also not where he needs to be to be happy when he's four and a half. The goal is, as No-Drama Discipline puts it:

What it all comes down to is that... kids. look inside themselves, consider the feelings of others, and make decisions that are often difficult, even when they have the impulse or desire to do things another way.

This is what I want for my son, when he is older. The only way to get him there is... well, to get him there, step by step. And, selfishly, I hope that he can use this skill to understand me, when I ask him to let me sleep in until at least 6am.

Understanding My Son

This all goes both ways. In the words of The Whole-Brain Child, "when interacting with our kids, it can be extremely helpful to decipher whether they’re in a reactive or receptive state of mind. This of course requires mindsight on our part." As a Dad, when I follow the five-step process above, I need to:

  1. Determine if my son is likely to listen, or if he's in the clutches of his extremely upset animal brain
  2. Connect, often by speaking the language of his animal brain and proving I'm there with him
  3. Move him from animal language to rational language
  4. Give him a chance to act in a rational way

Sometimes that works. Earlier today, a sitter came by to watch him, but he wanted to play with me, so he fell to the ground and cried. I could tell he was very upset, in his animal brain, so I hugged him rather than asking him to go off in the stroller with his sitter. Then, after just a minute, I asked him if he was sad that he had to leave with the sitter, or angry that he couldn't spend time with me. He said he was sad, so I told him I love him, and reminded him of the time we'll be spending together tomorrow. I gave him the choice to walk to the stroller, or have me carry him there, and he chose carry. We hugged a lot on the way. As I buckled him in, he said he didn't want to go, and I made sure he knew I heard him, but said that it was time. He left, crying softly.3

The point isn't that he was happy, and that the world was perfect. Many times we just can't make our children's worlds perfect; but we can help them handle those worlds. Within about 5 minutes, the whole tantrum was handled positively.

Even when things aren't handled positively, it can still be valuable. No-Drama Discipline suggests that "every time our children misbehave,they give us an opportunity to understand them better, and get a better sense of what they need help learning. Children often act out because they haven’t yet developed skills in a particular area." What's better for parents than a clear request for help in developing specific skills?

Understanding Myself

This is a skillset I can apply to myself, as well. Not that I need someone to walk me through understanding and vocalizing what I feel at any time — although, now that I say it out like that, isn't that the foundation of a good friendship or romantic relationship? So many nights, when I'm having a cocktail with my wife and we're going over what's on our minds, doesn't verbalizing what I'm feeling put me in control of it? — but, instead (or, as well), it's something I can do on my own.

Let's get back to the noting of thoughts that I mentioned earlier. A key part of mindfulness meditation, according to some practitioners, is to note the thoughts that fly into your mind as you meditate; label them generically, and without judgement; and let them fly away. HuffPo has a good walkthrough of what this is like in practice.

Every morning, I use my Calm App to practice mindful meditation; during many of those meditations, I note what comes into my head. I put a word, like "worry" or "fantasy" or "memory" to it, and then let it float away. Later, when the thought comes back into my mind, I'm more aware of it, and more likely to be able to manage it well. Even when I'm in distress, this practice noting and labeling makes me more able to understand why I'm in distress, and therefore more able to both manage and solve it.

I start a new job in a few weeks. It's amazing, the job of my dreams, really. Hopefully, I can listen and help my teammates grow using just these skills; and realize that, in so much of the affairs of the world, we're all children, and we all need to learn skills we don't have, to deal with challenges we can't yet handle, to become the best versions of ourselves.

  1. Just like an only child, per my experience as an only child

  2. I don't like the name, but I love the concept

  3. And came back happy, because he loves this sitter