Several years ago, when I had first become a school administrator, a child was sent to my office by a frustrated teacher. Big-eyed and oh-so-earnest, the young man claimed he had no idea why he was there, what he could possibly have done wrong.
He was vehement in his insistence that he was completely innocent. Until ... I wondered aloud what the teacher who sent him would say when he arrived. I reassured the student that I always ask for both sides of a story, meaning that both he and Mr. X would have a turn. And ... well, maybe Mr. X might say that, just possibly, the boy had not been paying attention and had actually, very accidentally, knocked over his books twice, and...
The fact is, that when our children complain about something that has happened to them, our natural inclination is to believe it. We assume our children are telling us the truth, when, in fact, they may well be telling us their own, very limited view. What they are saying is much more a function of self-protection and genuine tunnel vision than it is a matter of dishonesty.
At the same time, the way we can best help our offspring grow is not to overreact. Best to listen carefully and respectfully, then to ask — genuinely, not facetiously — what would you like me to do to help? Sometimes just listening will suffice, despite the fact that we love to be the knight on the white charger.
If a child persists and wants you to do something specific, do yourself (and him or her) the favor of saying something to the effect of, “This is what I heard you say happened and why you are upset. I understand how you might feel that way. When I go to speak to Mrs. So-and-So and share with her your feelings, I am also going to ask her for what she thinks happened. Do you think she is going to agree with you, or might there be another side of the story? I can help you best when I have the full story. Better yet, why don’t you come with me to see Mrs. So-and-so? I am sure she would like to hear directly from you. I will be there to help listen.”
At Lake Tahoe School, our Honor Code stresses honesty, integrity, and respect. We all should value those traits. Truly listening to a child and trying to hear the real message is a sign of respect.
So is seeking a full picture. One of the historical jokes among educators is the notion of saying to parents, “If you promise not to believe everything your child says happened at school, I promise not to believe everything she or he says happened at home.”
The corollary to that is, “If it doesn’t sound quite right, it probably isn’t.” I encourage all of us to remember that there are always sides to a story, generally all of them include truth as well as one’s own perspective, which might not be shared by all.
Ruth Glass is headmaster at Lake Tahoe School. She can be reached for comment through her blog at www.laketahoeschool.org.