I begin with a story that a university student shared in class, when we were working on materials related to the impact and effectiveness of feedback. The idea was to tell concrete cases of good and bad feedback, given or received, to reinforce awareness of the importance of being constructive and rescuing, as opposed to destructive and devastating.
– In my last year in high school, all students went to the finalists trip except me because of a disciplinary process in which I really behaved badly. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life, but my father made a gesture that I will never forget.
– What happened?
– I know you deserved a punishment, but I thought it was disproportionate. A finalists' trip is unrepeatable and being left behind, being left out is humiliating. Not only can we not live those days with our friends, but afterwards we also cannot bear to hear them tell how it was.
– And your father agreed?
– I don't know if he agreed, but he knew the whole process because he was called to school. That day I arrived home with the certainty that the worst was yet to happen, because the school had already given the maximum punishment, but the parents, at home, usually also punish and it is not small. It turns out that my father saved me forever.
– I arrived home and my father called me for a serious conversation, which I even found intimidating. I sat down to hear the worst, but my father looked at me in silence, saw the state I was in, completely desperate, and said the one thing I didn't expect him to be able to say.
– I heard what you did and the punishment that was applied to you. I know how you are feeling because at your age I also made my finalist trip. But I know that I cannot reduce you to your failure. You were punished and I will not punish you anymore. I know you are worth much more than your mistake and I am sure that you will learn from all this.
The whole class heard this report in absolute silence. And the student in question concluded:
– I learned a lot, but above all I felt that my father did not give up on me and this helped me to recover from the shock of being prevented from doing what I wanted most, which was to go on the finalists' trip. And he made sure that he did not remain at the bottom of the well, disgusted and discouraged.
It seems too simple, doesn't it? I would say that it almost sounds like fiction, just like a ‘nice guy’ movie, but in this and other cases reality surpasses fiction. Few of us parents would have the courage, the discernment, the calm and even the inner freedom to sit down with an offending son and tell him, eye to eye, that he is worth more than his failure.
The natural inclination of mothers and fathers is to carry the paints of punishment even more and wait for their children to learn their lesson from this double punishment. I believe that in some cases it is necessary to reinforce at home the guidance given at school, but I believe even more in the rescue power of true, realistic, clear and constructive feedback.
Understanding is the greatest force for change. And trust always generates more trust. I know, I observe and I never tire of repeating that it is infallible mathematics. When that father told his son that he knew what he was feeling, he was also telling him that, although aware of everything that happened, he still believed in him. She understood him in her grief, but because she knew him well, she did not give in to the temptation to condemn him, too. He did better: he held him responsible and raised the bar when he stressed that he knew it was worth much more than his blunders and deviations.
Not reducing others to their lack, their mistake, their nonsense, their imperfection or their limitation should be a rule of thumb for everyone, but especially for parents and teachers, educators and tutors who invest in the development of children and young. Reducing someone to their minimal expression is a strategy of weariness, incredibly fallible. It rarely works.
My student spoke of this dialogue with his father as being the most transforming moment of his life. From that conversation, he said, everything changed within him. He did not make the trip, it is true, but a greater awareness of himself and the impact of his actions on others had redeeming consequences.
I admire fathers and mothers who do not give their children what they deserve, but what they need. Mothers and fathers who save their children from the inclined plane of discouragement, who rescue them for life and help them find a purpose.
Many young people would need to have such parents around. Some because they feel frustrated, others because they are ‘for nothing’, others because they don’t have self-love or motivation, yet others because they are vulnerable to bad company or peer pressure. And so on.
I know many boys and girls who would feel much better about themselves and about life if they had been lucky enough for this student of mine. I am thinking of concrete cases of adolescents with eating disorders, mental health problems, depressions and other problems that lead them to irremediable limits, such as losing their sense of life.
This student did an invaluable service to the class when he shared this family episode. I was in awe of the courage to publicly assume his mistake and realized where his confidence and strength for sharing came from. Blessed parents who do not reduce their children to their failures and help them get back on track. Blessed parents who do not go to school to ask their children to be punished, but neither do they impose a second sentence on them. Blessed parents who know that everything is played on trust.