When I think about the skills I want my kids to have as they grow into maturity, one of the key things that keeps coming to minds is the ability to keep a proportional perspective. It’s something we often repeat with a little mantra “Don’t turn little things into big things.” Normally we say that when some little issue is escalating into a big dramatic fight,or when some very little situation we’re trying to correct gets blown up by their resisting discipline or something. (Pick up your book becomes “go to time-out” becomes “three consecutive time-outs” becomes “WHY OH WHY?!? WHEN WILL THE MADNESS STOP?!?!”. You know, normal family stuff.)
When we’re debriefing this sort of thing, we often have a moment when we try to help them understand that what started up as a little issue became a big deal, and we try to figure out what we could have done differently to keep from turning the little thing into the big thing. I should go ahead and point out that this all works in reverse, too. There are some issues that really are a big deal, and sometimes we want to minimize them and ignore them. That’s not any good, either.
What we want them to learn is how to keep things in the right proportional perspective—to give problems, challenges, and opportunities the proper weight and emotional energy.
There’s an easy reason why this skill of keeping things in proportional perspective is so important to me—I know too many adults who are really bad at it. It’s a discipline, and if people who go years without practicing it, become people who have a hard time solving problems without destroying everybody in their path. They become people that nobody really wants to deal with, because you suck too much energy out of everyone along the way. Others begin to think of things that involve these people (problems or opportunities) as just not being worth the energy that’s going to be required by messing with them.
Everybody knows somebody like that. You know somebody like that. People that struggle to keep things in the proper proportional perspective. They drive you nuts.
But let’s thicken the soup a little bit. If you’re thinking this is just a problem for the sheer villains of your life, you may want to stop and let yourself back on the hook.
Proportion distortion is the sort of thing that not only the “worst” people do, but normal people do when they’re being the “worst version” of themselves. When I’m at my best, I don’t do this kind of stuff. But I’m not always at my very best. When I’m tired, hungry, or just in a foul mood, I let my discipline down. I exaggerate things that I think are important, and I minimize things that other people think are important. So this isn;t just an “other people” issue.
I want to get better and better at keeping things in the right proportional perspective. I want to develop first the skill of noticing when I’m out of proportion (and listening to people who are telling me this!) and second, the skill of backing up and getting things framed better. I want to help my children learn as they grow up to keep pressing towards a proportional perspective, not only when it’s easy, but even when it’s elusive and everything in their minds wants to pull things into distortion.
Of course, the secret to teaching them is is not what I tell them, although I like the mantra.
What’s really important is what I show them. It not only requires that I have the “right ideas” about what I want my kids to learn. It demands that I develop the discipline to model it as well. It demands that I keep learning, keep stretching, keep practicing, keep growing—and that’s why parenting is hard work.