by David Hafter
Sometimes, the best (non-academic) teaching is just a matter reminding someone of what they already know. They have either forgotten to employ current knowledge or it did not occur to them to use it from one situation to another. This has come up in my work with youth when they have gotten into various kinds of trouble. Rather than ‘teaching’ them how to use proper language in class, for example, which assumes they don’t know how to act, I have asked, “Do you speak differently to your friends than you do to your grandparents?”
They look at me quizzically. “Of course,” they reply. Expecting that answer, I come back with, “How so, and why?” They go on to explain that they cuss around their friends and talk about all sorts of things they would not bring up in front of their grandparents. The answer to ‘why’ of it is also simple. “Out of respect for my grandparents.”
Perfect. Exactly. Knowing this, I would be wasting my time (and boring them) to launch into a well-meaning curriculum module designed to teach them how to behave. They already know; what is useful is helping them to see the value in employing the skills in the classroom with the teacher that they already use at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. This is not always a simple task, but it is the right one and is most respectful to the youth who, in his or her mind, has valid reasons for behaving disrespectfully to their teacher.
In the wonderful film, Play it Again, Sam, Woody Allen’s character is wracked with anxiety when it comes to interacting with women, leading to constant failures. He has a rich fantasy world, so much so that he mentally animates his hero, Humphrey Bogart, who interacts with Allen in the guise of his cool character, Rick, from the even more wonderful film, Casablanca. Allen’s character receives on-target advice from ‘Bogart’ – just what he needs to hear given his socially crippling situation – but his usual response begins with a “yes, but you’re Bogart.”
Yes, but… always means, yes, I already know that, but actually doing it is hard.
Fair enough. No one ever said change was easy. In the case of working with youth, often in a group format, my pointing out their existing skill sets and strengths is a much more positive place to start than assuming they have deficits I must somehow fix. What I can do, however, is help them to find their values and then commit to living according to them.
Values must be owned by the youth in order for them to be helpful in guiding their thoughts, feelings and finally, actions; I am clear with them about this. Well-meaning parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, clergy and others may have golden nuggets for them to absorb, but only those values which are owned by the youth will make any difference. We start with a definition of values and go from there.
There are many different types and approaches of counseling, and most of them are quite valid. As you would imagine or assume, what works for one person does not necessarily fit well with another. People sometimes blanch at the thought of counseling, not wanting to ‘dig up’ all the negatives from their past in order to work through issues to feel better.
I get that and this reluctance is one reason I tend to work, when appropriate to do so, from the perspective of identifying where the person is now (point A) and also where s/he wants/needs to be (point B) and then taking that journey with them, clear goals in mind. Whatever is discussed along the way needs to be in support of furthering that process toward point B. Sometimes it is a short trip; at other times, longer. My trust is that whatever unresolved issues are interfering with that trip to point B will come up for our attention. In this model, ‘yes, but…’ is not resistance to the process but a chance to see and work with whatever is in the way of progress.
‘Bogart’s’ role in Play it Again, Sam, is to be the reminder of what Allen’s character already knows but is having difficulty putting to good use. In counseling, I use this hero model as a tool, part of the process – not the whole thing – with youth. I get an example of a difficult situation s/he regularly faces and then ask, ”Is there someone you know, either in real life or even perhaps a character from a book, movie, TV show or video game, who would know exactly how to handle the situation in a successful way?”
(My definition of successful, by the way, is usually encapsulated by the three values of “safe, healthy and out of trouble.” I am always up front about these three being my personal bias for them values-wise; I don’t expect them to own them just because they are my values for them, but I offer them up as a well-reasoned option for them to consider. Frankly, it’s hard to argue with safe, healthy and out of trouble. Even the youth in juvenile hall don’t balk at them.)
In order for you to accept the help of a “hero on your shoulder”, whispering good advice, you have to first find a hero who shares the same values as you and has the skills you may have difficulty employing to resolve the difficult situation. An adult woman may identify Katherine Hepburn’s character from The Philadelphia Story as her hero who could handle a difficult situation. (Boy, am I dating myself, or what?) A fourteen year old girl or boy would clearly make a different choice but the process is the same. The fictional hero is of your own creation; their words of advice are actually yours. If the youth chooses a real life person to whom s/he has access, perhaps a helpful conversation between them will ensue. Either way, positive values- based choices become available and that’s really what we want.
David N Hafter, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist living in Davis.