Since this was an idea I mentioned in my initial post, I thought I’d take a moment to elaborate on it a bit. The idea of assigning positive intent was one that I stumbled on about 3 years ago… and there has been little in my life that has caused such a paradigm shift- especially as it pertains to parenting- as this idea. It has changed the way I relate to my adult friends and acquaintances, it has changed my attitude about life in general, and it has most definitely changed the way I think about raising and discipling my children. Since this wasn’t (and still isn’t!) something that comes naturally to me, I have to assume that it doesn’t come naturally to many.
Put simply, assigning positive intent means to assume a person’s intentions in a situation are positive rather than negative. It gives people the benefit of the doubt that their intentions are loving or kind, rather than malicious, hurtful or manipulative. For example, if I’m in group supervision at work, and my boss makes the comment in front of everyone, “Well I think we all know what Lynsey would do in that situation…” I can choose to take this several different ways. I can choose to believe he doesn’t respect my judgement and ability to handle situations, and that he is deliberately shaming me in front of my coworkers, or I can choose to believe that he finds my quirky way of handling situations to be creative and inspired, and that if he really had a problem with it he would tell me in private.
I’m not talking about making excuses for toxic people. Nope. We all have them in our lives, and they are what they are. I’m talking about those people that have done nothing to force your judgment- including (but not limited to) your children. And even when someone’s intentions are negative, it keeps me (or you) on the positive side of things, which will always be a healthier choice. When I choose to assign positive intent, I am treating someone with the grace that I would hope to be treated with. I am taking the time to be conscious of my thoughts and how they affect me. And I am acting in a way that I feel Jesus expects me to act.
I want to add the caveat that assigning positive intent does not mean that I intentionally deceive myself and live in a la-la-land of rainbows and unicorns. It means rather that I try to overcome my natural inclination to jump to a negative conclusion of motive based on my initial perception. It’s looking at all the possible explanations of a situation and choosing the best from my limited information. Sometimes I will be wrong and that’s okay. At least my conscious will be clear that I did the best with what I had to work with at the time. And I will not have judged someone unfairly or harshly if and when their motives are good.
So how does this relate to children and parenting? Okay, bear with me. It means that every day I choose to believe that my children are behaving a certain way for a reason. I assume that Asher is crying because he is trying to communicate with me, rather than manipulate me or make things more difficult for me. I assume that Annabel is acting out-of-control because she is hungry and overstimulated, rather than out of defiance. (These are simple examples, and don’t cover the broad spectrum of reasons I believe children cry or act out of control). I research what is normal and expected for each age/stage that my children are in, and choose to assume that this stage will pass.
Does this mean that I excuse bad behavior?- absolutely not! There is a high standard of behavior in our home, and I expect- and actively help- my children to meet these standards. But because my assumptions are positive rather than negative, my feelings toward them remain loving and positive rather than turmoiled and angry. I respond to them out of a desire to teach, rather than to punish.
I also truly feel that assigning positive intent to our kids gives them the motivation to actually behave better in future interactions. I’ll tell you what I mean by that- if Annabel hits her brother, and I respond to the situation with the belief that she is a kind person, but is acting out of a desire to protect her belongings, while understanding that at this age she lacks the impulse control to stop herself 100% of the time, my response will encourage her to be kind in the future. Because if instead, I act from the belief that she is being selfish and hurtful, she will internalize those labels. Even if I don’t say them to her, my tone and attitude will convey that to her, and eventually she will start to believe those things about herself. People who believe they are kind, or good, or helpful, will act in those ways, as will people who believe they are bad, selfish, or hateful. If I believe good things about my children, and take the time to convey those beliefs to them, they will be more likely to internalize positive labels about themselves. Positive thoughts lead to positive actions.
In practicality this might look like me saying, “Annabel, I understand that you are mad that your brother took your toy. You are afraid you might not get it back so you hit him. Hitting hurts, and you may not hit your brother. Instead of hitting, you can say, ‘this is my toy, you can play with this ball.’” In this interaction I have assigned positive intent (she’s not hitting because she wants to hurt her brother), I have empathized with the emotion I saw (she’s mad. I know what that feels like) and validated that it’s okay to feel angry. I have restated our boundary (it’s not appropriate to hit to get what you want), and used the situation to teach (telling her what to do instead). I am teaching them both a life skill -conflict resolution- that they will rely on for the rest of their lives. In her book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, Becky Bailey states, “When you attribute positive motives to your child’s behavior, you position yourself to teach, and your child to learn. You model the value of cooperation” (p. 152). (She has an entire chapter of this book devoted to using positive intent to turn resistance into cooperation. It is excellent.)
Finally, I assign positive intent because this is the example I see in the Bible, over and over. Scripture says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9), and “Do not judge, or you too will be judged… and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt 7:1-2). And of course, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). I can’t think of an example in which jumping to a negative conclusion was a helpful in Scripture.
I’ll leave you with the words of my friend Allison, who puts it beautifully, "Satan is a thief, but he can not take what we don't give him. Assignation of Positive Intent with our families, friends and community is a skill worth spending the time in prayer to develop, because it makes our time together so much more worthwhile."