(I wrote this for Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter back in September 2012, but it’s still relevant.)
A few days ago, I was riding my horse in our neighborhood arena while a father was attempting to teach his son to ride a bike in the grass. The father would push the son forward on the bike, and the son was supposed to pedal. However, even from a distance, I could tell that the son was getting scared and freezing. Instead of pedaling, he’d put his feet down into the grass and come to stop. The father had an excellent opportunity to talk to his son about overcoming fears.
Alas, that’s not what happened. Even from a distance, I could hear the father yell to his son in frustration, “If you’d only pedaled when I told you!” and “Why aren’t you listening to me?” Obviously, that didn’t help the boy pedal any better!
The father was making a very serious mistake in taking his son’s failure personally. He was seeing it as a failure to obey, rather than focusing on the son’s actual problem — namely, the difficulty of overcoming fears. As a result, the son was not only deprived of useful help about managing those fears, but also burdened with feelings of guilt too. Even worse, the father was telling the son that the son’s own judgment (including his fears) were not nearly as important as obeying the father’s commands. Oy.
Happily though, the father seemed to muster some better control over himself after that burst of anger. He stopped yelling, and the tension seemed to ease. Hopefully, he realized his error. Hopefully, he’ll stop himself sooner next time.
I’m not immune from the error of atttemping to dictate others — whether children, animals, co-workers, friends, or husband. I suspect that I’m not alone in that! So here are a few suggestions, which you can take or leave:
When you find yourself growing frustrated by the fact that other people aren’t doing what you’ve told them to do, remind yourself that they’re not likely attempting to spite you. Perhaps you didn’t give clear instructions. Perhaps you’ve asked too much of them. Perhaps they saw problems with your plan that you missed. Perhaps their goals don’t mesh well with yours.
Instead of stewing over their failure to obey, consider how you might be genuinely helpful. You might want to ask them if they want help. You might want to clarify your instructions. You might want to just keep your mouth shut.
Whatever the circumstances, acting like a petty tyrant is always the wrong answer. Nothing alienates rational thinkers — young and old — more quickly.
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