If the difference between “friend from work“ and “real friend” is whether or not you’ve shared a meal at home, Wayne and Merri are the real deal. The three of us met professionally forever ago and have been personal friends since I can’t even remember. Wayne and I have spent many nights primitive camping with our kids. Merri and I have talked long into the night about raising healthy children, treatment options, psychotropic medications, aging parents. It seems like Merri and I live parallel lives with lots in common. Her life is dedicated to making a difference. I try to keep up.
I like Wayne and Merri’s kids too. But when I saw their son Johnny recently, I could not talk to him. I must’ve seemed rude. My comments were brief—of the “hi, how are you?” variety—rather than the emotionally intimate conversations that we have had over the years.
I will give you a million dollars if you can guess why I chose not to communicate with this young man whom I have known half his life. Johnny and I have hiked miles and hours together, slept outside by a fire, talked endlessly over the years. But not this time.
Here are some of the wrong answers for why we didn’t chat for more than a minute: I did not have work calls to return; I was not on deadline to write one of these blog posts; I was feeling fine, no health concerns. I could sense Johnny’s disappointment. Here I was a guest in his home. We had not seen each other in months, not since the last family camping trip. Why was I brief, almost curt? Why wouldn’t I connect with him for more than a meaningless sentence or two?
Any guesses? We had any number of topics to catch up on. Johnny ran cross country in college. Why didn’t I ask him about how his team did during senior year? Johnny and I had seen a rattlesnake on a family camping trip. Why didn’t we reminisce about how exciting that was? Johnny’s sister had gotten a new job recently. Why didn’t I ask how she was doing? I’m sure he would have been grateful for insight into my family, kids he knew and cared about.
No thoughts yet? The million dollar prize is still available. Why did I cut off the conversation, excuse myself, ignore this great young man? Why did I treat him like a stranger rather than the old and good family friend that he is?
Because his parents had told me something that I was not allowed to know. Johnny’s wife is pregnant, only a few weeks along. That’s great news, but no one is allowed to know. Young couples are understandably circumspect.
I know myself. I have ODD—obsessive disclosure disorder. That’s why I don’t play cards for money. If I have a pair of eights, I start to grin then giggle, then I make snorting sounds like I’m choking and whisper “eights!“ under my breath. I have the opposite of a poker face. I knew very well that if I spoke to Johnny for more than a minute, I would not be able to inhibit my joy about his good news. I would say something stupid like, “how’s your wife feeling?” or “thought of any good baby names lately?“
I can’t imagine what Johnny must’ve thought. He had not offended me in any way. I still care about him and his family deeply. My inability to have a conversation with him was based on my imperfection—that I can’t keep a secret—nothing to do with him.
Which got me wondering. Are we interpreting our children’s behavior properly? Could there be stuff going on in their biology, in their psychology, in their environment of which we are not aware? Is the most obvious explanation for what they’re doing typically the correct one? Or should we consider plausible rival hypotheses?
What about something as simple as a child refusing to do homework? Parents typically suggest the young student won’t fulfill his academic responsibility. “He could do his homework,” mom begins. “But he chooses not to.” Could the actual case instead be:
- Neurologically based learning differences inhibit ability to read or process information?
- Attentional issues, distractibility, inability to concentrate?
- Anxiety disorder gets in the way of focus?
- The homework is unbearably easy, feels like annoying busy work?
- The homework requires more writing than a young hand can produce?
- Exposure to violent video games, Internet pornography, or social media interfere with study time?
- He’s not as cognitively capable as his overreaching parents keep insisting he is?
- He has developed a “you can’t lose if you don’t bet” attitude based on pressure and perfectionism?
- Some combination of the above factors or other considerations I can’t begin to guess.
The reason for a child’s reluctance to do homework might be as obscure as the reason for my refusing to talk to the son of a family friend. Digging for the correct explanation can lead to satisfactory answers and appropriate remediation. Getting it wrong is a step on the path to damaging a relationship with a beloved child.