The best possible motive

Several months ago I wrote about moms I want to know — intriguing mothers from a variety of children’s literature. I knew there must be more out there, and I just found another.

Lucy and I just discovered The Golden Book of 365 Stories by Kathryn Jackson and Richard Scarry. The book is out of print now, but we got it used on Amazon after seeing it drawn into an illustration in Richard Scarry’s own Good Night, Little Bear. Lucy and I wondered about the book Little Bear was reading before bed, and lo and behold, it actually exists. Now that’s product placement for you!

We’ve been having fun reading through some of these stories. We are trying to discipline ourselves to read just the January stories in January, just February stories in February, and so forth. There is one that really stood out to me from January 24, entitled “Shush!” Two children, Peter and Katie, decide to very quietly clean the lunch dishes while Mother and Baby are taking a nap, washing them carefully and putting them away until…

…Just as he reached for the last one — the big sandwich plate — it slipped out of his hands, and out of Katie’s hands.

Crash! What a terrible crash! It woke the baby from its nap. The baby began to cry. It woke the mother from her nap. She picked up the baby, and down the stairs she came. Into the kitchen she came. But she didn’t say, “Oh dear, my sandwich plate!” And she didn’t say, “Why can’t you let things be?”

She said, “Why, Peter and Katie! You did all the lunch dishes for a surprise!”

Then she put the baby in the high chair, and hugged her bigger children, and swept up the sandwich plate — and took out the cookie plate, and sugar, and eggs and flour, and all the good things she needed for making round, crisp, sugar cookies.

Let’s put aside, for the moment, a few amazing things — the fact that the mother is taking a nap, the fact that the older children are not drawing on the walls or watching a video while the mother is napping, and the fact that the older children are washing the dishes. What I really like — and what seems like an attainable character trait — is the way the mother instantly recognizes that her children were trying to do a good thing. Even though she and her baby are awakened from a sound sleep, she is not grouchy and irritated. Instead, she assumes the best motivation for her children, observes the situation, and sees that the children intended to truly be helpful. And then (she is a woman after my own heart!), she starts baking a batch of cookies.

Alfie Kohn, in his fascinating but sometimes maddening book Unconditional Parenting (more on that some other day), lists this as one of his parenting principles: “Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.” This is a great idea, and in my best moments I am able to do it, but it can be difficult. Especially at the end of a long day, my nerves are a bit frayed and I start to make assumptions. “She is stalling on purpose, just to make me crazy!” But the truth is, the girls aren’t out to make me crazy — they are just doing what small children do. Day after day, I need to wipe the slate clean and remember that my children are simply working on growing and loving and learning.

So, if Lucy makes a huge mess “washing” the bathtub, I’d like to praise her creativity and encourage here to help tidy the mess. If Rosie pours water on the floor to “clean” it, I’d like to applaud her instincts and hand her a rag. I’m glad for one more example to help me remember that kids are kids. Maybe this nameless mother has untold stresses in her life, too, but she is able to keep the goal in mind. It’s not about her nap, it’s not about the sandwich plate. It’s about raising her children to be loved and loving. I think can do that, too — especially if baking cookies is involved!

6 Replies to “The best possible motive”

  1. Ann, I love this. I have been reading a book called Hold On To Your Kids and for part of the book they talk about something similar, gauging your children’s intent instead of the actual result. It IS very challenging for me because I also tend to think that they are deliberately trying to drive me crazy! We’re currently in the phase with Ben where his favorite words/phrases are “poop” “fart” “poopy underwear” “stinky feet” and other very pleasant things. I need to remember that he’s just being 4 and not trying deliberately to gross me out every minute of the day.

  2. ann, i’d love to hear more about the book “unconditional parenting” or other books you might recommend…especially as we enter the terrible (but hopefully not-so-terrible) two’s.

  3. What a lovely piece of writing. What a lovely piece of parenting. We are so fortunate to have our granddaughters growing up in such a loving home. (But they better not drop any plates while I’m napping!) I send you my love…

  4. That really is such a good lesson to learn. It makes me much more relaxed as a parent when I look at things from the perspective that they are children doing normal child things vs. trying to make me crazy! I had Benjamin’s preschool conference today and the teacher told me that they’ve had to work a little bit on him following instructions. She said it wasn’t that he didn’t listen – it was that he was so busy thinking of how to do something, that he didn’t always follow the given instructions. So she would say to him “Benjamin, the instructions are…. you can choose to follow the instructions or not” and he would then choose to follow the instructions.

    Her comment was, while this can be a frustrating thing for a parent – to have a child coming up with their own way to do things, it’s actually a wonderful skill and means he’s likely to be able to lead others eventually because he’ll be the one coming up with the plan of action. I thought that was such a positive way to spin something that could easily be taken as him just not listening.

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