According to our friends at Wikipedia, pain is a “distressing feeling caused by intense or damaging stimuli”. Seems about right. Everyone has experienced it at some point in their lives, whether physical or emotional. One thing is for certain – it is not pleasant and most of us try to avoid it.
As parents, pain can take on a whole new meaning, especially when we see it experienced by our children. What mother’s or father’s heart can tolerate it? Seeing our child in distress is part of the human condition, but it does not make it any easier. When we become parents, it seems a very natural and evolutionary stable strategy to lead and love in ways that minimize the pain our kids experience. Try as we might, though, we will only have partial success because experiencing pain, in some form, is part of life.
In their book, Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill-Grace offer important insights into the sometimes tumultuous relationships some children have with their classmates. I remember when this book was released in 2002. My then-headmaster recommended it to our whole staff team and a number of parents, whose own students and children were having difficulty navigating some “social waters” during the school day. I read it then and have re-read it a few times since. The stories told in its pages come from a variety of perspectives from psychologists and therapists to parents and educators. For anyone who is a parent or a teacher, the anecdotes ring very true.
The stories told range from issues involving strained social dynamics and cliques to playground dust-ups and trails of gossip and the impact such experiences have on kids and their school day. The stories also shed light on how de-briefing sessions at home can help or hinder many such situations.
My former headmaster was particularly struck by Thompson’s warning against what he called “interviewing for pain”. He helped to shed light on this phenomenon by reminding us that parents can sometimes interview their child for pain when they are in distress. As parents, we love our children, but sometimes we just can’t help it. We probe in unhelpful ways – and it can often make things worse.
Interviewing for pain describes a situation where a child complains about another child’s behavior, and then every day, when that child returns from school, her parent asks, “So, honey, was so-and-so mean to you today? What did they do? What did they say? How did they do it or say it?”
Thompson points out that children are quick to realize that bad stories about so-and-so 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 we constantly interview our child for pain, our 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.”
Thompson is not advising us to disbelieve our children, nor is he saying that we should not be empathetic. However, he is advising us not to interview for pain, not to nurture resentments, and not to hold onto ancient history. Why? Because kids don’t.
We need to remind ourselves not to interview for pain. Yes, we must remain open and attentive, especially if someone close to us wants to talk about something painful. We should never be dismissive, or eager to avoid a subject — but we should also strive not to shine such a spotlight on a difficult situation that everything good fades out.
This can turn the “temperature up” on a passing unpleasant moment and pretty soon it becomes “climate change” moment.
If temperatures rise too high, too fast, the result is drought and fire. And that is not good for anyone!
Ric Anderson, Head of School