Many years ago when my son was diagnosed with dyslexia, a woman I respect greatly counseled me to be on the alert for people who might make Duncan feel like he needed to be fixed -- and to be very sure I wasn’t one of that number. She was another educator with a learning-different child of her own.
Yes, there needed to be strategies to help him navigate the expectations of an educational system that is designed for auditory and visual learners -- those who read fluently and memorize efficiently. At the time it was also a system designed to divert him from his real gifts -- drawing/painting/video production -- in order to address his “deficiencies.” In other words, we were always being told that he would be pulled from art class to take remedial reading classes. This was my cue to start the paperwork to transfer him to a different school. The price to “fix” him was too high; the price to fix him was to take away the primary activity for which he was celebrated.
I transferred Duncan three times during his elementary and high school years. It was a lot of extra work -- and extra driving time -- but Duncan had teachers who found ways to let him shine, both in his artwork and in his contribution to classroom discussions. In the areas where he needed support, these teachers understood that they didn’t need to dumb down the content. They just needed to help him with the mechanics.
I was referred to a tutor who had photos of famous dyslexics all over the walls of her in-home classroom: Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Mohammed Ali, Magic Johnson, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Tom Cruise. Leonardo da Vinci -- and she made sure that Duncan knew that he too had an exceptional brain-- not a sub-standard one that needed to be fixed. She was his cheerleader, and because he was celebrated for his strengths, he improved steadily in those areas that were a struggle for him.
I can still feel my temperature rising when I recall the day a letter arrived from his high school recommending an extra course in making change, so that he could work at fast food restaurants; “After all, we all have to be productive members of society.” They might as well have written, “Here, we have this box we can put you in (literally), and then the problem-that-is-you is fixed.” Many times -- after Duncan had completed his B.A. at an excellent college, the San Francisco Art Institute -- I contemplated sending an announcement of completion to the authors of that letter. My more evolved self decided on a letter of gratitude to his tutor instead.
Years ago when I was teaching, there were always a few parents who would come in for their conference braced to hear how we were going to lower the hammer on their underachieving or misbehaving offspring. I always asked the same question: “Where does your child shine?” Whether it’s soccer or art, video games or the harmonica, a child needs to feel celebrated in order to be open to change. Someone with high self esteem is more productive -- and much easier to be around.
Consider the emotional bank account concept introduced in the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. Covey explains that the emotional bank account is based on trust rather than money. Withdrawals come in the form of criticism, public castigation, any form of abuse and not keeping commitments. Deposits come in the form of praise, celebration, willingness to say you’re sorry and always doing what you say you will. When you’re making more deposits than withdrawals into someone’s emotional bank account, the relationship is strong and harmonious because both parties feel good about themselves and about how the other sees them. Trust is fertile ground for growth -- both growth of the relationship and growth of the individuals.
It’s not uncommon in couple relationships for one party to set out to “fix” the other. Maybe it’s the woman who feels she knows how her mate should dress, earn and recreate. She is the arbiter of correct standards, and she sets out to mold him to these universal (she believes) specifications. Maybe he has a gift for gardening, playing the guitar or running marathons. Maybe where he really shines is in making other people feel important. She admired his strengths and talents when they first got together, but now she is focused on the ways he falls outside her image of how her mate should be -- how loudly he talks on the phone, his propensity for letting the grass and late charges grow, his devotion to football and beer...
When Lee photographs a bee on a flower, the flower and the bee are distinct in the finest detail, but the background is fuzzy and indistinct. That’s what happens when our hypothetical woman focuses with great concentration on her mate’s perceived flaws; What isn’t right is clear and distinct and larger than life. What is right -- where he shines -- fades into a fuzzy, indistinct background. His gifts are denied center-stage. Rather than feeling celebrated, he feels like he can’t do anything right. The more withdrawals she makes from his emotional bank account, the more distance he wants to put between them and the more resistance he feels to changing whatever behavior is disturbing her.
We get more of what we focus on. More to the point, what we focus on is perceived as more and more prominent; it is, after all, the subject we’re bringing into careful focus in the foreground of our mental photograph. The danger is that in perfecting the focus on the ways in which her mate doesn’t meet her expectations, the “shortcomings” expand in her consciousness and before long entirely obscure his true gifts.
Note: Yes, there are behaviors that cannot be overlooked or tolerated. There are people that cannot or will not respond to respectful requests for change. Addictions, abuse -- whether physical or emotional, persistent apathy, clinical depression, diagnosed mental illness -- these are often manifestations of such a depleted emotional bank account that professional intervention is required to bring someone up to a positive balance again -- so that they can respond and not just react, so that they can choose to change.
If like me, you have a mate who is reasonably happy, balanced, and proactive in his life, it’s very simple to fill up his/her emotional bank account. What does it look like for us? It’s a touch, a kiss, a compliment, loving eye contact, preparation of a favorite meal, a back rub, holding hands, a night out, flowers, doing the dishes -- so many small acts of service and devotion.
Lee loves it when I pick up the tab for a meal out occasionally. It makes no difference, really. Our money is entirely merged at this point, but it makes him happy.
I love it when Lee suddenly freezes in mid-step and says, “Oh-oh, it happened AGAIN! I’m even more in love with you!”
We ask each other more than once a day, “What can I do for you?” More often than not, the answer is “Not a thing right now,” but it’s a great feeling knowing that someone really wants you to be as happy as possible.
When one of us does something undeniable stupid (like frying the microwave using it as a kitchen timer; yes, I did this), the other refrains from blaming. Lee helped me clean up, air out and then sat down and ordered a new one. I didn’t need to have a second opinion on how dense I can sometimes be in the service of expediency.
Lee and I recommend the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman whenever a friend says something like “We love each other, but we’re so different. I just don’t understand her.” A woman is more apt to say, “He just doesn’t get it!” Each of them are certain that they are showing their love and devotion, and just as certain that their partner is either refusing to acknowledge the effort or is just plain dense. It’s possible, says Chapman, that neither of them is fluent in their partner’s love language of origin. I know that Lee feels loved when I spontaneously give him a good foot rub (love language: physical touch), and he knows I feel loved when he raves about a turn of phrase in my writing (love language: words of affirmation) or jumps in and does the dishes (love language: acts of service). Filling up the emotional bank account is more effective when you’re depositing into the optimal account. As Lee says, why not make it the one that has the highest interest.
As a gardener, I think of it as providing the most fertile ground for Lee’s growth. How? Encourage, affirm, and celebrate him. Take time for a 10 minute foot rub. Love him without conditions. Lee has to do his own pruning, because only he can decide what the finished masterpiece that is Lee Strong will be.
I’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as constructive criticism, because by nature criticism is a tearing-down, not a building-up activity. Or to follow Covey’s metaphor, criticism is almost always a withdrawal from the emotional bank account. Happily, if you’re making frequent deposits and if your mate is a relatively happy, emotionally balanced person, respectful, loving requests for changed behavior are usually not perceived as withdrawals.
Consider this quote from Charles Schwab, investment guru: “I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.”
This seems like a good place for PROMISE #2 from our wedding:
We are too busy looking at what’s right with us to worry about what might be wrong. We promise to keep looking at what’s right.
Susan is a published writer and motivational speaker with 30 years of experience, dedicated to guiding people to a life of financial invincibility and peace of mind.