"It's not because I say so. . . "
Renée Fuller, Ph.D.
Mrs. Brill looked distraught. She was describing the continual fights between her husband and their son: how Ben was unwilling to listen to his father's demands or even requests. Her furrowed brow reflected her distress as she expressed fear that the son, whose birth they had so eagerly awaited, was turning into a juvenile delinquent both at home and at school.
"It's been getting really bad. Ben and his father are going at each other all the time. Seems like it's always the same. My husband tells Ben what to do, and Ben shoots back with, "Why?" Whereupon my husband, getting mad, shouts, "Because I say so.""
Then Ben shouts, "Says you. . . "
Mrs. Brill continued: "And now Ben says he won't let you test him. That the whole thing is stupid. That he doesn't see why he should do something so stupid."
After that introduction by his mother I wasn't surprised when eleven-year old Ben strolled into my office with both his face and movements expressing disgusted negativity. "I'm not gonna do this!" he snarled.
It was now my turn to come back with "Why?"
"Cause it's stupid."
Careful to avoid responding in any way that might be interpreted as taking offense I pointed to the test material and said: "This is what these tests look like and this is what they're about." With that I proceeded to show Ben test items well below his age level. "See, these questions measure different abilities. That way we can figure out what someone is really good at and what they have trouble with. Then we can tell you or the school how to use what you're good at and that way help you with what you're not so good at. Now see if you can figure out what this question measures and what it could tell you."
We spent the next few minutes going over several test items on the elementary level. Then I began asking Ben the test questions appropriate for his age. Although he realized what was happening, Ben had become so interested in the methodology that after answering a test question he would try to analyze what it measured. The testing itself took over an hour. When we said good bye, Ben and I shook hands in a cordial adult fashion.
Later that day Mrs. Brill reached me by phone. She expressed surprise that her son had let himself be tested and wanted to know what had changed his mind. My response was: "You told me what to expect. That he would ask 'why.' Which he did. So I told him why. That the testing could tell what he was good at so it could be used to help him learn the things he had difficulty with. After each test question Ben analyzed it trying to figure out what it measured. He liked being able to use his head that way. Most kids do. Trying to figure out how the world's put together is part of being human and also growing up. Although sometimes there are governments and social structures that discourage this human questioning that Ben is so fond of."
Mrs. Brill's voice was thoughtful as she asked, "Does that mean that we should explain to Ben why we want something done, or don't want him to do? Like why he has to pull his weight and do some of the house chores? Or why he isn't supposed to hang out with the bad boys in school?"
"Yes." I said. "Let him know the reasons for your requests. Why the family has to pull together. Why you can't be expected to do all the work around the house, and why you need his help. And tell him about the people you've known or know that made you draw conclusions from what happened to them; what occurred as a result of what they did. Describe what made you come to your conclusions. Go ahead and specify the price you or others had to pay for making what you came to learn were mistakes. Ben likes to hear and be given real world information. He doesn't respond well to orders. And maybe that's just as well. We've seen what happens in societies where youngsters are not allowed to use their reasoning abilities, are not allowed to ask questions. In a way Ben is a very modern young man."
I could tell that there was a certain reluctance to Mrs. Brill accepting my explanation as to why Ben had acquiesced to the testing. Several days later it became evident why. There was another telephone call from Mrs. Brill. She asked whether I would explain what I had told her to her husband because, "He's having real reservations about having to 'justify' himself to Ben. Would you talk to my husband?
My response was, "Of course."
What followed was a lengthy telephone conversation with the usually taciturn Mr. Brill. It was an awkward, halting conversation until something finally clicked. That was when I told Mr. Brill that his son was not like those indoctrinated young men we had been reading about, but a true American youngster who asked "Why?" The father started to laugh and said, "In that case I wish he were less American." But of course he didn't mean it. I could tell he didn't mean it from the way he listened to my suggestions. And contrary to his previous attitude, he now seemed actually rather proud of his son's gumption.
From what Mrs. Brill told me later, her husband didn't have an easy time putting the reasons for his demands and requests into words. But, as she described it, with practice the words got better at coming. And learning how to put what until now had been demands into words clarified some of the preconceived beliefs with which he had spent a lifetime. As a result a rather surprised Mr. Brill let go of certain demands. However, realizing the importance of others he explained their importance and why they must be carried out. Finding the words to clarify demands and requests was hard work. But gradually he became quite good at it. It also brought father and son closer together. Mr. Brill being a patriotic American attributed his success to American values.
But something unexpected happened as Mr. Brill got better at explaining the reasons for what had been perceived as arbitrary demands. Previously as foreman he had had problems with the men he supervised: problems that were similar to those he had had with his son. Now, having learned how to give explanations for his orders the relations with his men improved. This resulted in an enhanced job performance of his team. Much to Mrs. Brill's delight the improved performance meant a promotion for her husband and an increase in his paycheck.
Several years passed and Mrs. Brill called again. A new problem had arisen. "My husband got really good at explaining why he wanted something done, or why Ben should or shouldn't do something. But now Ben is giving him back-talk."
"Is Ben just saying 'no', or is he giving his reasons for not accepting what his father has just explained to him?"
There was a momentary pause, then "It's more like Ben's saying 'I won't', and like 'I don't see why I gotta tell you why'."
"That should be enough to make your husband mad."
"It sure does. Just a while ago they were such good buddies. But now they're at each other's throats again. What do we do now? Is Ben just being a teenager? Is there at least something we can do about Ben being so difficult?"
"Sounds like Ben's trying to think on his own. That's a good thing, if it leads to a proper discussion. Now it's your husband's turn to encourage, even to insist that Ben explain his reasons. When those reasons are finally elicited they can be quite an eye opener - not only for Ben but for all of you."
By the next day there was another call from Mrs. Brill. "Ben won't give his reasons. He just shrugs his shoulders and walks off. My husband's ready to kill him."
I had to laugh. "I guess Ben's having a tough time explaining himself, just the way your husband did. There's a German saying that roughly translated goes 'The apple doesn't fall far away from the tree.' Looks like father and son share similar problems. But that gives you a grand opening. Your husband can say to Ben something like 'Remember what a time I had giving my reasons for why you had to do something. It took me quite a while to get the hang of explaining myself. Now you're having the same trouble. But just because something is difficult doesn't mean you have to give up trying. You're not the giving up type.' In other words if your husband challenges Ben to think and explain himself that can open up the discussion."
It was Mr. Brill who was the next to call. Even on the phone it was obvious he was livid about Ben's behavior. But after we talked a while about challenging, even daring, Ben to think through the reasons for, the why's for his behavior, he became thoughtful. He asked: "Do you think Ben really knows why he's doing something? Maybe that's the reason he won't give an explanation. Maybe he's just like some out of control runaway car?"
I had to laugh. "A lot of parents would probably consider that a good description of their adolescent kids. As for Ben, he probably isn't clear in his own mind why he's acting up, which is another reason he's having trouble explaining the rationale for his behavior. And that makes it all the more important that he should be challenged to put the reasons for his actions into words. That way he'll learn to gauge whether what he's doing makes sense. And tell him something to the effect that 'it's no disgrace when you find out that the reasons for your behavior aren't so great. When you find that out it's to your advantage to let go, to chuck that way of doing things. Explaining 'why' to yourself and/or to me also let's you know what's truly important: what's worth doing. And although as parents, we tend to be knowledgeable, having been around longer, we don't always know what's truly important to you. What you're facing in today's world is somewhat different from the world of 20 or 30 years ago. So let us know. After all, three heads are better than one. Now, as I've told you before, I too found it difficult to explain myself. But as we found out, I got better at it with practice. And in the process I learned a lot about myself and other people. And that comes in handy. An understanding laugh about Ben's difficulty in expressing himself might also help."
Mr. Brill and I talked for quite a while. He had come a long way since the time when we first met. I remembered the Mr. Brill of just a few years before. He had been a taciturn man who had had difficulty not only in expressing but in understanding himself. He had latched onto the phase "It's because I say so" as if his life depended on it. I suspect that's how it felt. Now, having learned to explain the reasons for his requests and demands to his son, and then to the men he supervised, he was like someone who had been liberated. From the shackles of a non-communicative world he had entered a thinking world. It freed in him a potential he had not known nor ever expected could be his. The change was so fundamental that he even looked different.
Words can be powerful thinking tools. And a thinking human being is very different from one stuck in preconceived assertions. In the case of Mr. Brill the cognitive change was accompanied by a striking change in appearance. And a very important additional change was that being successful in his supervisory work, now that he had learned to communicate more effectively. meant a steadily increasing salary. Mrs. Brill all but yodeled as she described the nice house they could now afford and had moved into. She didn't have to tell me that she also made sure that her husband was properly dressed for his new position. That was evident. All in all Mr. Brill presented a very different appearance from the Mr. Brill I had first met.
The struggle with Ben was not easy. Expressing himself verbally had always been a problem for the youngster. This was also apparent from the low marks he received in English composition. Even writing a coherent sentence presented itself as a major chore. One understanding English teacher had tried to have Ben verbally explain in class what he had intended to write. It was to no avail. Words were not part of Ben's tool kit. He could not think with them because he didn't own them. Lacking the ability to combine words to help him think and express himself meant that his thinking capabilities were severely restricted. So it was small wonder that explaining or putting the reasons for his actions into words in response to his parents' requests presented a difficult task indeed.
But Ben was especially fortunate. He had a father who, watching his son vainly struggle to find the explanatory words and failing, understood. He saw Ben, that stubborn son of his, as indeed his son with the same problems that once had been his own. So what had been the taciturn Mr. Brill turned himself into an unexpectedly effective teacher. And because he recognized Ben's problem for what it was, having previously suffered with it, he understood the ways to teach Ben: ways that could open up the world of words for the youngster.
It took a good year before real success became apparent. The first to notice the change was the English teacher who had previously tried to teach Ben and failed. "You did it!" she wrote on the breakthrough composition. It was the beginning of Ben's entrance into the world of thinking with words, allowing him to explain, to give reasons, finally to understand some of his own actions. And once Ben had started to use words to think and explain himself his communication skills began to accelerate. With that there were no more implied or expressed "because I say so."
Striking also was Ben's altered facial expression, which previously had had a closed look. Now Ben looked more connected, more alert. Like his father, once Ben had learned to use words to think there was a change in appearance. In a way he too had become liberated. Looking back at the extraordinary transformation in both father and son made me marvel at the cognitive and emotional growth that had taken place in the Brill family.
Theirs was a transformation made possible by the deep love of a father for his son.
PO Box 429
Williamstown, MA 01267
© 2002 Renée Fuller
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