When We Want People to Change

Do we have the “right” to expect a behavior change from another person?

Posted Apr 05, 2012

 This got me thinking. It was evident to me right away that if the same behavior came from her partner, she would have responded differently, and even more differently if this were a neighbor, a co-worker, a supervisor, or a staff person she supervises. What varies, I realized, is the nature of the relationship, not the effect of the behavior itself. In each type of relationship we have some belief about whether or not we have the “right” to expect a behavior change from the other person.

Jenny knows me well, including what to expect of me in terms of my parenting philosophy, so I knew she would be open to hearing my very radical views about parenting. So I shared with her my own memories, from very early on, of how I wanted to raise the children I thought I would have (before deciding at 17 that having children was not for me). I’ve been both blessed and cursed to have vivid and acute memories of what it was like to be a child in a world of adults. I thought then, and I still think now, that no one asks children if they want to be born or if they want to live with the very particular parents they have with their very particular preferences. The whole idea of children “owing” something to their parents never made sense to me. Not as a child, and not even as an adult. And yet I know that most parents have a sense of both responsibility and entitlement to influence their children’s behavior.

What’s Different Between Our Partners and Our Children?

With her child, such an agreement could never have been secured. Any attempt to create change in a child’s behavior, especially an adolescent who is already the same size as she is, is very likely to be experienced as an intrusion or an attempt to control. Children, by and large, never take on a commitment to support the well-being of their parents as part of living together. As human beings, in a manner entirely similar to adults, children are likely to naturally care about their parents well-being. However, the fundamental expectation, which starts early on, that a child is to do what the adults tell them to do, interferes with the natural flow of generosity and care. By adolescence, the combination of the insistence on independence with regards to emotional needs mixed with the thwarting of autonomy with regards to life choices leaves children with far less access to their essential care and generosity than they might have otherwise. Which is why I suggested to Jenny that she adopt an attitude of gentle exploration with her child rather than an expectation of change. Jenny could approach her child and let him know that this behavior is challenging for her and that she is very open to working on her end of learning to accept it. Then, once he knows she is not about to exert subtle or direct pressure on him in the form of punishment, withdrawal of connection, or reduced access to resources, she can ask him if he has an interest in changing the behavior for his own reasons that have to do with who he wants to be. The spiritual stretch comes when he expressed no interest of his own in changing the behavior. This is quite likely, at least the first few times, if previous interactions have been coercive, however subtly so. I know very well from memory what it’s like to be told that I can do whatever I wanted and then discover silence and anger when I made the choice that was clearly not approved. Jenny can only do this form of parenting justice if she is truly open to stretching on her end to accept her son’s choices.

Other Contexts

In yet other kinds of relationships people distance themselves or even exit a relationship rather than naming a behavior they don’t like. The commitment to each other’s well-being, or the expectation of it, is not built into many of our relationships, and in its absence we generally either fill it in with our belief that we are entitled to it in the particular relationship, or recede from it when we don’t have such a belief, and remain less strongly connected to the relationship.

I am continuing to think about this. I know I am not done, because the questions and permutations remain many. I am particularly curious to hear others’ experience in this area. I remember hearing from Marshall Rosenberg his experiences in creating imaginary written role-plays during parenting workshops, one with an adult neighbor and one with one’s child, about the same unwanted behavior. Both dialogues would be posted without people knowing who was who, and invariably they all rated the dialogue with an imagined neighbor as more loving than the one done with the child. What would happen if we did a similar exercise in many types of relationships? What would prevent us from being fully loving, open, flexible, and ready to hold our own and others’ needs with care in all of our relationships?