Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Unsolicited Do-Gooding

A friend recently undertook the major project of organizing her aging mother’s photographs, arranging them in physical photo albums chronologically taking great effort to make the collection shine through design and layout. Largely bedridden, her mother increasingly enjoys her trips down memory lane via these images from her past and her daughter, knowing how much her mother disliked modern technology, wanted to surprise her with this beautiful, thoughtful high-touch gift.

Her mother, however, did not see it that way. Indeed, she was dismayed, not seeing it as a gift at all, but rather an unauthorized intrusion upon her personal property. When next my friend saw her mother, the old woman had pulled most of the photos from the albums and once more had them collected around her apartment in messy stacks. My friend was livid. How could Mom be so ungrateful. It’s so typical of her. I worked so hard on it. And so on. I tried to understand, but I was really just nodding along in a show of sympathy because, honestly, I agreed with her mother.

Unsolicited help of this sort is rarely a welcome thing. Just because she is a bed-ridden, slightly senile old woman doesn’t mean that she can’t know what she wants. Indeed, according to my friend, her mother has never been shy about asking for help and that has only increased as she has become more physically and mentally helpless. If she had wanted her photos organized, she would have certainly asked for help, so yes, this was an intrusion, a violation even, but I wasn’t going to point that out to my friend because that would have bordered on unsolicited advice, which is likewise rarely welcome.

It seems to me that much of what adults do to and for our children falls into the category of unsolicited do-gooding. Much of the griping I hear from parents and teachers about their charges “not listening” or being “ungrateful” or simply being stubborn sounds a lot like my friend’s complaints about her mother’s response to her gift. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen adults completely wreck a child’s game by inserting themselves, unsolicited, under the label of “scaffolding.” Education literature is full of advice that begins with “Have the children . . .” or “Encourage the children to . . .” In fact, it seems that much of the pedagogy that springs up around play-based education, despite our foundational ethos of letting children play, is rife with tips and suggestions for “maximizing their learning” and identifying those “teachable moments,” all of which strikes me as a kind of unsolicited intrusions.

Just because they are children, it doesn’t mean that they don’t know what they want. And most children are perfectly capable of asking for help when they want it (as opposed to adults deciding for them that they need it). I’ve found that children with whom I share a relationship of trust typically have no problem asking for my help or advice. In fact, this goes for people of all ages. And when it comes to people, both children or adults, with whom I don’t have this sort of relationship of trust, it is simply good form to ask, “Would you like my help?” before assuming my help is wanted.

We mean well when we offer our unsolicited help or advice, but there is at the same time at least a dab of condescension and hubris in the assumption that we know better than others, even if they are old and bed-ridden; even if they are young children. So until they ask for our help, until they ask for our advice, I’ve found the most respectful course is to simply listen because, like with my friend whose feelings were hurt, even if that means just biting our tongues and nodding along, that is what they need most from us.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: