One of my favorite parenting books is Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill’s Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understand the Social Lives of Children.
Like most good parenting books, the advice turns out to be just as useful when dealing with adults as it is when dealing with children. (I think about Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s brilliant How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk more often in the context of adult than of child interactions.)
As I was reading Best Friends, Worst Enemies, I was particularly struck by Thompson’s warning against “interviewing for pain.”
He describes a situation where your child complains about another child’s behavior, and then every day, when your child returns from school, you ask, “So, honey, was Pat mean to you today?”
Thompson points out that children are quick to realize that bad stories about Pat will be a good way to get your attention, and that they may seek to satisfy you, and present the facts in the most attention-grabbing way. Also, Thompson writes:
I believe that we live the story we tell ourselves — and others — about the life we’re leading… If you constantly interview your child for pain, your child may begin to hear a story of social suffering emerge from her own mouth. Soon she will begin to believe it and will see herself as a victim…
Please understand that I am not advising you to disbelieve our children, nor am I saying that you should not be empathic… But… don’t interview for pain, don’t nurture resentments, and don’t hold on to ancient history. Kids don’t.
And although Thompson doesn’t make this point, it also seems to me that by asking this question, we focus a child’s attention on that part of the day. Instead of thinking about the happy interactions that took place, the child tries to remember painful interactions.
Not “interviewing for pain” seems to me to be excellent advice for dealing with children — and also adults.
For instance, I can imagine a well-meaning friend or spouse or family member asking at every meeting, “So is your ex-wife still as awful as ever?” or “Is your boss still so difficult to work with?”
Now I remind myself not to interview for pain. Yes, stay open to a discussion, if someone close to me wants to talk about something painful. Not to be dismissive, not to be eager to avoid the subject — but also not to shine such a spotlight on a difficult situation that everything good fades out.
Have you ever interviewed for pain — or perceived that someone was interviewing you for pain?