Assuming Positive Intent

I'm on a bit of an "anti-work" kick right now, which is understandable since I'm down to my last 30 days. One of the things I've been pondering today as I sip my tea and listen to some good old acoustic bluegrass, is how to best apply some of the leadership concepts I've learned in Corporate America to my new endeavors, whatever they may be. As I cycle through some of these lessons, I am struck by the sheer volume and magnitude of bullshit that exists out there; it's really mind boggling. When I applied for grad school back eight years ago or so, I noted on my applications that I was interested in finding out what real leadership was - but that there were more than 14,000 hits on a Google search of "leadership books and training." Between the volume of the bullshit, and the utter bullshittiness of most of it, there's no wonder that I am left sitting here wondering just what in the hell I've been doing with my career these past several years. Hmm.

Assume Positive Intent

But there have been a few good nuggets that I've come across which have been instrumental to me in my journey as a parent and a partner. The concept of "be open to outcome, not attached to outcome" has served my family and I very well. I've also enjoyed the principle of "tell the truth without blame or judgment", which speaks to me about being able to have emotions, but to separate them from the heat of the moment once in a while. The one that I'm thinking about today, though, is a pretty simple concept to grasp - but a very, very challenging one to practice:

Assume positive intent

"Assume positive intent." That could mean a number of different things to different people, but again for me it's just not that complex - when you see people do things that seem strange to you, when your partner sounds stressed and snaps at you, when your children are asking a thousand questions - can you find the calmness to remove yourself from the moment, focus on the most charitable explanation for their behavior, and assume that they are intending to be positive?

This is particularly challenging for humans to practice, for a number of reasons. Most humans are wired to want to compete and win, so we often evaluate the behaviors of others to try to find the gaps and flaws upon which we can build a foundation for assault. People judge, they compare, they assign blame, often in an effort to make themselves feel better by comparison - "at least I'm not fat", "I would never say something that stupid", or "look at how she talks to her child; I'm a much better parent than that." It doesn't matter what is inherently "good" or "bad" in a given situation, and "right" and "wrong" end up being subjective depending on the preferences of the person doing the comparison.

Assuming positive intent calls upon us to seek out the good in others before we judge them. Obviously, partners would go along way toward achieving a highly positive relationship if they assumed positive intent in the other, but today I am far more concerned with how parents assume it in their children.

The Anatomy of an Escalation

Let's say your child is tired from too little sleep and a long day of play. They have been irritable all day, although not to such a degree that you couldn't handle it and diffuse it with a kind word and a snuggle here and there. As the day goes on, however, your "to do" list has increased a bit, and your child's needs and frustration have increased right along with it. Suddenly, you remember a doctor's appointment that starts in an hour, and you have to get your child ready to go. Of course, they are resistant and tell you "no, I'm not going." You reply calmly for a while, but as the time grows shorter so does your patience.

This is another tipping point, where if you are calm enough you can make a conscious choice on how to respond. As situations and disagreements escalate, many - perhaps most - parents respond in ways that are proportional or slightly escalated to their perception of the event that lead to their reaction. In other words, if a child is frustrated by having to go out and their frustration escalates, most parents will respond in ways that are increasingly even more frustrated and directive. In layman's terms, we sometimes try to one-up our kids until our frustration, anger, or other emotion finally gets too much for them and they either break down or give in.

Now, I am not suggesting that we do this consciously, although some parents undoubtedly do so; I just think that as humans we are somehow wired this way, to get caught up in the heat and passion of a moment and try to "win" so we can get our way or fulfill our wants and needs.
In these moments, it is difficult if not seemingly impossible to back up, take a breath, and assume positive intent. After all, what positive thing could a child be trying to do if they throw something or yell at you, or if they show emotions such as anger, frustration, and sadness? Well, there are a number of possibilities:

A child who physically strikes out at you may be "asking" you to help them find ways to deal with their anger; wanting to deal with emotion is a positive thing. If you don't believe that, think of the opposite - someone who does not want to find ways to deal with their anger will likely keep it in until it explodes or makes them sick.

A child who yells at you may be expressing their frustration with the only tool they have their disposal; using the tools you have to express yourself is a very positive thing. Someone who is unable to use their tools to express their emotions may be unable to express themselves, one of the most difficult issues of all to deal with as a parent.

A child who, in anger or sadness, runs into their room and slams the door may be expressing their need to have a private moment to collect themselves, or be inviting you to flee the scene of the confrontation to a place of security; having a secure place to emote is critical for a child, and people without such a place are often left with a sense of insecurity and an uncertainty about where to go to seek comfort.

This is hard to do. When we are being yelled at, when we're being cursed at, when we are faced with huge levels of frustration and resistance in the face of things that simply must get done, it is difficult for us to recognize that all emotions have value and deserve to be treated with respect, not just the "happy" emotions; after all, having and learning to deal with emotions is critical to an engaged and passionate life. And it is difficult to pull back and do the right thing by contributing to the comfort and security of our children so we can diffuse and help, as opposed to contribute to the frustration and anger of our children in an attempt to escalate and win.

I wonder why so many parents end up escalating these situations rather than diffusing them, and I wonder if they somehow feel they are entitled to battle against their children and entitled to win, simply because they are parents.

Parents Who Fight Against Their Kids

When things escalate, our children don't have nearly as many communication tools at their disposal as we do - but that doesn't mean that adults communicate any better than children do, especially if they set these situations up as "win-lose" and believe that, as the parent, they are entitled to battle and win.

I think parents, for whatever reason, expect that parenting is going to be pretty easy. Oh, they know that having a baby can be hard, and that teenagers can run a little wild, but overall I think they start with a fundamental expectation that it will be fairly simple and in control. And when they find that parenting isn't really like that, they do what many people do - they try to hold on tighter to that which is becoming elusive, like a mountain climber grabs a rope hard when she begins to slip. But grabbing the rope too hard can be fatiguing, so if that is all they do they are bound to slip further down eventually. Kids are the same way, I think. The more you try to control, the harder it becomes. A parent may start with reason ("You should not do that because . . . ), graduate to guilt (Mommy really wishes you wouldn't . . . "), and move swiftly to coercion ("If you stop, I'll give you a . . . "). And if that doesn't work, they may move straight to fear and intimidation ("Dammit, I TOLD you . . . !!")

Some parents think that they are entitled to respect and obedience. I mean after all, they are in charge; they make the money; they provide the roof, and the food, and the toys, and the clothes; they do the driving, and the cleaning, and make all the hard decisions. Doesn't that mean that they are entitled to be respected for their abilities and sacrifices?

Absolutely not. Just because they had sex without a condom, or whatever, doesn't mean they are entitled to anything except their name on a birth certificate and a tax deduction. Seriously - that's it. Nothing else. A parent is not entitled to love, or respect, or obedience, or friendliness, or concern, or anything else. A parent has to earn those things - without ever being attached to whether or not they receive them, or when, or how. They have to trust that they may never see the ultimate benefit of their work, but to still have confidence that their work had meaning and that the quality of their work was critical to the overall beauty of the end product.

So a parent has to earn the privilege of connecting with their children by coaching, and loving, and respecting, and believing, and inspiring, and motivating . . . but with a humility and grace that inspires confidence and trust, and earns credibility with their partner and their children. They have to recognize the fault in their expectation that a child should listen to and respect the parent because they are a parent, instead of because of what kind of parent they are. They must recognize and embody what every good leaders knows instinctively - that trust and credibility with your children must be earned, in every action and word.

Doing it Better

If we can get to the point where we realize that simply being a parent does not entitle us to much of anything, and particularly not to battle against and defeat our kids at the very point at which they are the most vulnerable, we can begin to partner with our children in an environment of love and respect. And we can, with time and patience, use the power of assuming positive intent to help our children work through their frustration, anger, and sadness.

When seen in action, assuming positive intent is really just a matter of switching your perspective. The behavior you have witnessed, the words you have heard, the feelings that have been shared with you, the toy that was thrown in your direction, have all occurred in the past - there is nothing whatsoever that you can do to prevent it from happening or to "rewind the clock" to alter the outcome. All you can is own your reaction to the event, nothing more and nothing less. But the way with which you approach your reaction can and will go a long way toward helping your children feel valued and respected.


  1. still have to work at this sometimes...and well said.

  2. Jeff,

    Thank you again for sharing this with the world. I am wondering if you have ever read the book "Everyday Blessings: the inner work of mindful parenting" by Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn? They say that we can view our children as little zen masters who offer the perfect opportunity to reflect on ourselves and practice mindfulness. Not easy, for sure, but I try to do the best I can...from reading your blog lately it seems you are doing the same! Anyway, keep it up; I find your efforts to become a better parent/partner/person inspiring...:)

  3. Thanks for this. I have just hit a wall with my 2 yr old and needed just the right words to help me get back on track. I appreciate your thorough thoughtfulness and examples.