Understanding or Agreeing

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

I once found myself witnessing a pretty heated conversation between a son and his mother.  Well, it wasn’t really a conversation, as the son was making little effort to try to understand the mother’s point of view.  Instead, he just kept repeating his complaints, his point of view, and trying to dominate his mother into seeing it his way.

I had been working with the mum for a few months, and she was trying hard to not be provoked into defending herself in the face of his accusations.  She was validating what he was saying and offering to talk about it if he wanted when things were calmer.  He was saying he wanted to talk about it, but then would go back to lecturing his mother when she didn’t agree with what he wanted.  As his frustration rose, the temperature between them rose with it.

The mother made a last attempt to help him, reflecting back to him almost word for word what he wanted and his reasons why.  The son then said, “So can I do it?”  She said, “No honey, you can’t”.

To which he almost shouted at her, “You just don’t understand!”

After a few moments, the mum said something that I thought was very wise.  “Is it that I don’t understand you, or that I don’t agree with you?”

He paused at this point, as her reflection clearly indicated she knew exactly what he wanted.  She understood him, she just didn’t agree with him.  She had her own mind and her own opinions, and they were not the same as his.

The child in all of us has the rather ridiculous expectation that people will agree with us if only they understood what we knew.  One of the gifts we give our children is the experience that they are well understood, but not always agreed with…and it is OK!  Learning and being able to accept this is not only helpful for their future intimate relationships, but also in their future social interactions with people of different cultures, religions, and political viewpoints.  In fact, with any person who is not themself.

We can all fall for the comforting thought error that if only the other person understood everything we did, they would agree with us.  This infantile approach towards others is very seductive, and protects us from the work of having to consider the other person as a separate and legitimate being with their own wishes and needs and views.   And possibly more importantly it protects us from doubt, and having to consider that our own view may not be quite as certain as we wished it was.

As your child is important to you, it is worth putting in the effort to understand them and to offer them the opportunity to understand you.  But if appropriate, give them the gift of it being no big deal that you don’t agree with them, even though you do understand them.