"I Can't Believe..."

"I can't believe he did that!" How often do we say this about our children? "I can't believe she just stepped in that mud puddle." "I can't believe he won't even try that slide." "I can't believe she would be so upset about such a little thing." "I can't believe that they enjoy playing that game."

It's certainly a common refrain in my parenting. Sometimes my disbelief is pure undiluted awe. "I can't believe what a wonderful child my son is." More often, however, in my experience, the dominant emotion is despair: this child acts in ways that make absolutely no sense to me, and I am at a total loss as to how to respond.

I was talking with a friend one day about one of these incidents, and found myself hearing the literal meaning of those words. "I can't believe he did that." How can I not believe something that I have been witness to? Surely, disbelieving something that's true about a person can't put me on very solid ground in relation to them.

I'd been focused on how baffling I found his behavior. But it occurred to me, in this conversation, that the place to start might better be my own disbelief. What if I tried going with the truty of what I've witnessed instead? "He did that. This did happen, and it's important that I believe it."

From that perspective everything looks different. Somehow the disbelief had insulated me from the reality of the situation. After all, if someone does something that's beyond belief, then I'm absolved from the responsibility of handling it. I'm justified in my feeling that it's out of my control, hopeless, impossible, whatever.

Saying that I do believe it feels like a first step toward reclaiming my power in the situation. If I acknowledge that reality, then I can start thinking about it. If he really did do it, then something must have caused him to do it. If I have a hard time believing it, then there must be something that's giving me a hard time.

This new framework doesn't automatically provide answers. But at least it faces me in the right direction with the right questions in mind. I might not want to know about it. I might not want to acknowledge that he is that upset, or that angry, or that scared, or that different from me (or that different from me when I was a child his age). But at least I'm dealing with what is. I'm on solid ground. Now I can take the next step: "Since this really is true, then it will be useful if I..." And, from the completion of that thought, a further step is likely to emerge.

After I'd started this column, I was telling someone about an awkward little encounter and heard myself saying, "I can't believe I did that." (This time, the dominant emotion was shame.) What a gift to have this framework to fall back on: "You did do it, there was some reason, and there's a next step you can take." Thank goodness for what I learn as a parent!"