Can't Do It Wrong

Stephanie S. Tolan

"You Can't Do It Wrong"

By Stephanie S. Tolan

Written for the parents of the Davidson Young Scholars Pilot Group June, 1999

During the Gathering at Tahoe, I made a pronouncement that I hadn't planned to make -- that in parenting your profoundly gifted children you can't do it wrong. Over the weekend a number of you spoke to me about this (mostly arguing against the concept in one way or another) and so I added a few words to it on Sunday before we all went our separate ways.

The next week I made the same pronouncement at the Gifted Development Center's Conference in Denver and again had parents speak to me (argue with me) about the idea. It seems reasonable to consider it a little more carefully, in a little more depth.

First, let me explain that the idea came from where I am in my own particular journey -- I believe that "you can't do it wrong" applies to our lives overall. I know that's a challenging idea for most people for lots of reasons. Certainly the Judeo-Christian tradition does not usually say it. There are lots of rules and regulations for doing it "right" and many warnings about how we need to guard constantly against our innate tendency to do things wrong. (Original Sin it's called in some quarters.) There are grave punishments, we are told, for those who ignore the rules and regulations and do it wrong anyway.

In the secular world this general approach is standard as well -- the assumption is that people tend to be inherently bad and that it takes lots of rules, lots of prohibitions and warnings and doses of guilt to keep them from doing great harm to anyone and everyone around them. The daily news seems to support all this negativity about the basic nature of humanity -- there are all those criminals, all those terrorists, killers, liars and cheats who cause grave harm.

And then, in a sphere other than morality, there are the schools, in which we are given the idea that there are "right" answers and "wrong" answers and that being clever and careful enough, researching or learning enough, will allow us to choose the right one over the others -- the wrong ones. (Note that there is often the assumption that one answer is right and all others are wrong, and that someone -- the authority in question -- knows the right one.)

Because of all this cultural context, I don't usually share the "you can't do it wrong" idea with others. It seems too radical. It makes sense only in a different context, in a world view, that suggests that we have plenty of time to "get it right," and if harm comes because of what we do, some good will come of it nevertheless, and we will have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes; a world view in which no harm is absolute and no darkness impossible to alleviate. Partly this world view makes sense to me because I'm intensely aware of the fact that even when we try our level best to do things exactly right, even when we consider our every move in light of all the best rules and regulations we've ever heard, even when we take action out of the very best intentions we can muster and the best learning we can do, we often do harm anyway. There are often unintended (or unforeseen) consequences to something we do, no matter how carefully and caringly we do it, and those consequences are sometimes very painful, very hurtful to others. In other words, there is no way to absolutely avoid doing harm.

Since I believe in a loving universe, a caring Spirit, it makes no sense to me that this Spirit would give us rules and regulations that don't work, that can't keep us from making mistakes and doing harm. Unless doing harm is not as dreadful as we think. Unless in some way all of us are on some level impervious to harm.

I have come to believe that each of us has an indestructible Spirit or Soul or Essence Self largely through my experience of my mother's death. So I'll share that story with you very briefly. (It's told more fully in an article in More Magazine, October, 1998, and will be expanded in a book of essays I'm currently finishing.) After having Alzheimer's for 22 years, though she had been totally unable to speak or follow any sort of logic or rationality for years; though she had broken her hip and been unable to move so much as a few inches for five weeks, a few days before her death my mother sat up in bed and spoke very clearly to the nurse and the aide who were together in her room at the time. Some of you know this story because I told it at the Hollingworth conference the following year. What Mother said was, "I have to go now, good-by; aren't the lights beautiful? Oh, there's Joe!" (Joe was my father, who had died four years before.) This was not a Near Death Experience, as she didn't die until five days after that. There is simply no way modern medicine can explain what my mother did. It was "impossible." Neither physically (because of the broken hip, which was seriously infected) nor linguistically, nor intellectually, could my devastated and dying mother have sat up, spoken clearly and loudly, and made any sort of sense.

As I pondered this impossible reality, I came to see that all through the very real horrors of my mother's ghastly last years, some piece of her had somehow remained untouched, undamaged, unharmed. Suddenly much of what I'd been reading in metaphysical literature made sense. There is a real distinction between the day-to-day aspects of reality, the self who functions in the world, and the deeper self. There is deep mystery still for me around my mother's story -- an inability to understand "why" she had to go through what she did those last years. But I know that on some level there is a why and that the fundamental self my mother was never was destroyed by the Alzheimer's that destroyed what we knew of her.

I tell that story so that you'll understand where I'm coming from with my own personal beliefs -- the whole issue is vastly more complex than this, of course, and there's no need to get into greater detail about my own personal belief system. The point I made that Sunday morning in Tahoe was that it doesn't matter whether you believe my statement or not. What matters is that you care about your children and you wish to do the very best job you can of raising them. So that if you were to act as if you believe that you can't do it wrong, you would not suddenly quit caring for your children or quit attempting to meet their needs in the best way you can.

Because they are so different from the norms, so far from any "instruction manual" for raising kids that is available, this job of yours is almost unbelievably difficult. In fact, it is very nearly impossible.

You are asked to balance continually between one extreme and another, to go against all (or much of) the cultural conditioning you have been given about what children are like and how they should be raised. You are asked to figure out things about yourselves that you may have hidden or run from, so that you can handle similar issues with your children. You are asked to break away from what may be generations of "standard practice" in your family in order to meet the needs of a child who, though a part of that family, is farther (perhaps much farther) along the intellectual continuum than anyone else. You are asked to deal on a daily basis with someone who has abilities many other people believe to be impossible. And you are asked to make choices between appallingly inadequate methods of handling your children's extreme and unusual needs in an often hostile environment, among people who sometimes may seem specifically to intend harm, to them and sometimes to you.

In other words, it may often seem as if no matter what you do, how you make your choices, you can't do it "right"! No matter what you do, your child may seem to be in danger of being harmed, perhaps seriously. Your child may face pain and almost certainly faces at least some degree of intellectual undernourishment.

No wonder you may from time to time feel exhausted, frustrated, angry, sad, confused and frightened. Even those of you with a firm faith and a deep certainty that your child is in good hands, more capable than your own, may occasionally get tired, may sometimes wonder if you can really do the job that you've been given.

This is where I bring out the ark story from the Bible Noah was asked to build that ark and the trick to that sort of task -- build an ark? in the desert? explain this activity to the neighbors? -- is that you aren't asked to do it unless you can do it! No guarantees that it won't be hard, but it will be possible.

If you were to believe, or even to "act as if" every single choice you make for your child is the right choice at the time you make it, one of the heaviest burdens you carry in raising that child would be removed. You would save all the energy that gets drained away in worrying, in making a decision and unmaking it over and over again, in tossing and turning at night wondering what the effects will be (or imagining them, often with dire images). That energy could then go into standing by your decision and making it work as well as it possibly can.

"But what if it's the wrong decision?" I was asked on both weekends. "What if it hurts my child?"

There is no decision you can make that's guaranteed not to hurt your child. The absolute reality of your child is that he or she is so different from the norms that some degree of "danger" is inherent in his or her fundamental reality. It isn't certain that your child will be hurt by anything you do or don't do -- some of you have children with such resilience, such a deep sense of joy and purpose, that they are likely to be hurt less by "any" choice you make than you are hurt by the "sturm and drang" of worrying about whether it's the right choice. But your child may, indeed, be hurt in some way by your choice.

It isn't easy to watch your child hurt. In fact, some parents find it the hardest thing in their lives. But you can't save your child from all pain, and it would not do them a service if you could. Meantime, you can model for them a confidence in the very act of decision-making that will help them cope with making their own decisions. And if something you decide to do for them doesn't turn out well, is a mistake, you can then model for them a way of handling mistakes that proves that mistakes aren't failures, but learning experiences. Did this work? No? Then what might work better? What else can we try now that we've ruled out this possibility?

We are living in a culture where we keep getting the message that pain is something no one should have to endure, not even for a moment. Got a headache? Take a pill. If something hurts us, we're told we can probably sue someone, because it's someone's fault. As if we were meant to be and have an inalienable right to be pain free! As if pain means that something has gone wrong or someone intends us harm. As if we have a right to be compensated in some way for the unfair experience of pain. But pain is a part of life. It isn't the end of the world. There are plenty of ways of handling it, even for the super-sensitive, profoundly gifted child who may encounter more pain than most people.

So, what good does it do us to worry that we might not be raising these unusual children correctly? There "is" no correct way to do it. We're in new territory, covering new ground, exploring regions no one has ever explored before. Each profoundly gifted child is a unique individual and no one knows exactly what is best for that child. We can only make the best decisions we can make at the time with the resources available. And then, if they don't work, make others. In the long run, however you do it, your child has a journey that is his or hers alone, and what he or she does with it, what path he or she chooses, will create a life that in no case is under your control.

Some of you object to this idea that you can't do it wrong because you are convinced (as I was most of my life) that your parents raised you wrong! That you didn't get what you needed and that you experienced unnecessary pain. Well, it's true that you had pain. If your parents had done something different, or been someone different, you might have had less. Or you might have had more. Or you might have had just the same amount but caused by different things. Can you possibly know how it would have turned out if things had been otherwise? And suppose it's true that your parents did things that didn't work and simply didn't change them when they saw that they weren't working, or maybe didn't ever even notice they weren't working, or maybe didn't care. You certainly learned the lesson that what they did didn't work -- so it's one method (or several) that you won't have to try on your own child.

Let me add an aside here when we do for our children what was never done for us, we need to remember that we may need to grieve our own losses. That too, is modeling. We can show our children that we can hurt and show our hurt and then recover from it.

Here you still are. Here your children are. Consider the possibility that all of that is just exactly right. Consider that you have the tools you need and that you either know or can learn how to use them. And that even if none of that is true, that there are no guarantees, so there's no real harm in believing that nothing you do is wrong.

Meanwhile, you have the astonishing experience of these astonishing children. If you can keep your perspective on the joys they bring and be grateful for those, it will help you act as if (or even actually believe) that you can't do it wrong. So, I tell you yet again,

"You can't do it wrong!"

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