Wednesday, September 14, 2016

No Apology -- When the passive voice is active.

"Mistakes Were Made in Owning up to Mistakes."

An older piece from the Christian Science Monitor that rises again to relevance.  My original title was, "When the Passive Voice is Active."

"I acknowledge that mistakes were made here." With those words Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales became the latest public figure to rely on the nonapology apology's best friend: the passive voice.

"Mistakes were made" is the consummate case in point. It has become a contemporary mantra. Why won't those pesky mistakes quit making themselves!
Writers are cautioned – sorry, let me begin again: editors caution writers to eschew the passive voice. It's needed sometimes, but too much of it is considered bad form. And in public life, it almost always has the effect of avoiding accountability. But in government hearings and statements these days it seems to be the norm.
This trend and the common use of the generic "They" – as in "They just can't seem to get along in Washington" – lead us to mask the reality that actual individual human beings have power and accountability in creating positive or negative outcomes. Anyone who works in a large organization has also observed the trend to attribute most problems to management.
When I hear such vague blame, I have started asking, "What specific person?" and "What specific action?"
When I confront my own teenagers with their mistakes, they sometimes protest, "You're trying to make me feel guilty." Darn right I am! Sometimes that is the right response to a bad choice. Blame is not always a game; it can be an appropriate reaction.
Passive voice has so cheapened the concept of a mea culpa that various officials in government hearings and press conferences actually seem to be proud of themselves when they acknowledge that "mistakes were made."
And the really brave ones admit that the buck stops at their desk. With a grave tone they state: "I take responsibility. I was ultimately the one in charge."
What they usually mean is this: "Some jerk under me messed up, and I'm being gracious by pretending that I think it was my fault. But of course you realize I am blameless."
Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear an official say, "I made a big mistake by appointing a friend (or a relative or someone who contributed to my campaign). I should have hired someone with the knowledge and skills to do the job." After fainting from shock, most people would admire that candor and maybe trust that the same mistakes would not be made again.
I try to fight this pattern of accountability phobia in my own work by quickly acknowledging errors and getting on with solutions. I'm consistently surprised at how forgiving people are; they are generally equally ready to move on to solutions.
As a psychologist, I am often asked to work with children who have difficulty accepting responsibility. I try to help them see that when we give away blame, we give away power. If we don't recognize that we messed up, then we don't realize that from that same source of power we can generate solutions.
In counseling, I assign children homework: Each week, they have to share a mistake they've made so we can figure out a better course next time. It's amazing how quickly they learn to say, "I made a mistake when I ...." Remarkably, I never hear the children say, "Mistakes were made."
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


The Orlando tragedy is an inkblot as each viewer makes his or her interpretation, but it is  ALL of the above. This gives us so many entry points in addressing the problem. So each viewer can choose a solution besides prayers and good thoughts.
The reasoning that laws didn't stop the last shooter ignores the reality that better laws can stop the NEXT shooter.

The story below is an example of just two of the sources.

Remembering Kenzo, and still trying to change gun law

The debate over gun laws will return to the news soon, as the Senate considers a bill that would, for the most part, immunize gunmakers and dealers from lawsuits for damages caused by users of their products. For many, only headlines bring the issue to mind, but for some it is a constant concern.
Recently, I was straightening the photos and bits of paper on my refrigerator when I came across a little card. It said, "Raymond, Susan, Lauren, Brian, Kenzo's tree is BLOOMING!" A fixture on my fridge for years, it blended in with the collage of family memories. The little card had been delivered by Kenzo's mother years earlierand was attached to a bag of cookies shaped like maple leaves. The tree that the note referred to was the one the neighborhood planted after Kenzo's death.
Kenzo Dix was killed at the age of 15 by a good friend. He was shot accidentally with a handgun that the youngster thought was unloaded. The boy removed the clip but didn't realize there was still a bullet in the chamber.
My own son is now 15, but when he was little, Kenzo patiently helped him shoot baskets in the portable hoop the big kids put up on our street. Kenzo was a gentle and cheerful boy who never excluded the little ones. As my son grew up, Kenzo was our model of how big boys should be to little kids.

His parents had done a great job with him and his brother. They were vigilant and conscientious parents, but not smothering. Their love and kindness was evident in their boys.
The funeral was the most profound event I've ever attended. The church was filled with teenagers, including the boy who shot Kenzo. A Buddhist priest delivered the eulogy. The priest spoke about the three poisons or evils according to Buddhism: greed, anger, and ignorance. The priest gently and clearly explained the impact that mindlessness or ignorance can have. Kenzo did not die because of someone's greed or anger, but because of someone's ignorance.
In my work as a psychologist, I present workshops to adolescents. Since that day, I have often told Kenzo's story. It provides such powerful insight: Youngsters need to understand that bad intentions aren't necessary to cause enormous harm. A few mindless seconds with a gun, or behind a wheel, can be equally damaging. Every time I've told Kenzo's story, there has been pin-drop silence in the room. It somehow helps youngsters see how fragile life can be and how we need to protect it with both goodwill and mindfulness.
When a young person dies, people struggle to make sure the death is not in vain. And in my work with teenagers I try to see that Kenzo's life was not in vain. I believe those who loved him find a bit of comfort in knowing that the goodness of Kenzo continues to grow and bring goodness into the world.
Hardly a day passes when I don't think about him. I drive by the maple tree on my way to work. I see his mother and wonder at her ability to cope. I hear a basketball bouncing in the street. I think of him when I see my son extend a kind gesture to a little child, as Kenzo had done to him.
I read about gun issues in the paper and wonder how peoples' hearts might be changed had they known, and then lost, Kenzo. I wonder if the "freedom" of some might create a prison of loss and sadness for others.
The gun lobbyists argue that they fear "frivolous lawsuits." In this case, it is an oxymoron. No person who has lost a loved one when a gun was not carefully made or carefully sold feels the least bit of frivolity. They are, unfortunately, very serious. Kenzo's loss is still sad beyond explanation - but Kenzo's tree is still blooming.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Would be great if this oped of 12 years ago was no longer so relevant. Now the sports metaphor seems to be a morphing of politics with professional wrestling.

American political polarization amounts to fear of being left out

I'm starting to wonder if entertainment television, talk radio, and sports have all had a negative influence on political discourse in this country. I watch a lot of political discussion on TV and a fair amount of sports, and in a disturbing way these two contexts seem to be morphing into each other.
It now feels as if someone is keeping score in the political arena. And unfortunately, in my own mind, when I hear of a gaffe or embarrassment for the party I don't prefer, I think, "Oh good, a point for my side."
When "my side" is called for a foul, I think that the officiating might be biased.
So many recent events highlight the polarized context we are now operating in. Whether it is reaction to the Michael Moore film or to an interview with a candidate, there seem to be so few people willing or able to see anything positive in an opposing side or any negative in their own. Perhaps it requires a level of effort and analysis that doesn't fit with the sports metaphor.

I wonder if there was a time in political discourse when people listened to each other and occasionally said, "Hmm, that's a good point, how can we incorporate that into the solution?"
"Solution?" Now there's a novel concept.
But it may also be one that doesn't make for entertaining television talk shows.
One morning I read the regular oped columnists known for their political perspectives. I was in agreement with the one on "my side" and opposed to the other.
Then I had this wild idea: What if, on April Fool's day, the paper switched bylines on columnists who are well known for their political perspective? Would content we normally oppose all of a sudden make some sense if it appeared to have been written by a commentator we usually agree with? Would the tendency to accept input from "our own team" trump our normal belief structure?
The columnists seem to be participating in this sports metaphor and their contributions are often "scoring a point" in style. Or perhaps readers have come to be more entertained by a contentious, bombastic style. So that is what "sells."
I wish we could find a moral or even a common-sense compass that hasn't been distorted by the sports metaphor for politics. In the sports context, saying "I see your point" would be like stepping aside for the other team to score a goal or handing them the ball at their 10-yard line.
I believe that Americans are looking for the truth, for common sense, and for solutions. But there is something seductive about the bond that comes from cheering for the same team. Sadly, it requires that there be an opposing team.
Trying to understand what in our human nature as well as our environment has brought us to this point, I recalled conflict resolution interventions I'd conducted in various organizations. At one large high school the situation was classic. Faculty factions had come together based on what other faculty factions they disliked. They shared almost nothing except their opposition to the "other team." The need to belong was so powerful that members of one "team" disregarded significant issues among themselves and simply focused on the common enemy, the other team.
Once when I was interviewed after a violent incident at a school, I was asked what was the greatest fear of children. The journalist was thinking in terms of weapons.
But, after listening for years to the concerns of youngsters, I answered without hesitation, "Being left out."
Looking at what is taking place in the polarized nature of politics these days, I think that maybe we never outgrow that fear. Perhaps this polarization is less about ideology than about belonging. By backing "our team" we share a bond with others - we are not left out.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

Saturday, May 28, 2016


I'm reminded that this is a good time to repost an older article from the Christian Science Monitor. Please share with your graduate, no matter what their GPA.

A Graduation Speech for the "Average" Student

Honor those hard-working grads who didn't quite make it to Harvard

    By Susan DeMersseman / May 24, 2004
    Graduation season is here. Soon millions of students will be leaving for college or other pursuits. But I wonder how some of them will be affected by the speeches and awards at their commencement ceremonies?
    I, along with other relatives and friends, have listened to hours of speeches and watched dozens of the 4.0's come up to the stage for award after award. As I've watched the faces of those not called, I've wondered what it must be like to be a solid "C" student, or one who struggled to hold on to a "B." Did those "average" students feel that, after all the hoopla for the award winners, their fate of mediocrity was sealed?
    As I sat through one of the longer events, I started composing an address for those "other" kids:
    Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, congratulations to the valedictorian and the 4.0's. I wish them well, but this is for the rest of you.
    You're not off to Stanford or Harvard. Maybe you're going to community college or state college, or your second or third choice. Or maybe you're going to try something different. Good for you! You are all about to do great things. Ahead of you are opportunities for success that you haven't even imagined yet. Maybe success by worldly standards; maybe success by your own standards.
    I have one piece of wisdom to share. Much more of our future than we sometimes realize is a matter of chance, and a lot is what we make of those chances.
    You might, for example, get a part-time job with a landscaper, find that you love it, and go on to create beautiful environments that bring joy and pleasure to others. Your college roommate's dad might own a business that gives you a summer job, and you might end up running the company. Or you may find the only class that meets a requirement one semester is "Geography of Water" - and you get hooked and eventually design clean-water systems for developing countries.
    One of my favorite sayings is, "God laughs, when man makes plans." I don't mean don't plan. But some of those perfectly planned 4.0 lives may take unexpected turns and so will yours. Be ready to make the best of them. The doodles that always got you in trouble may be the groundwork for a cartoon series, the design for a new building, or might enhance the lessons for your future students.
    One of those 4.0's might find a medical cure for cancer. But you might find a cure for loneliness. One day you might comb an old woman's hair into a neat little bun, push her wheelchair to a spot next to her favorite rosebush, and listen as she tells you about her garden.
    Whoever you were on Commencement Day, whatever others expected of you - well, that's done. Now you get to reinvent yourself. If you were always the super-neat one, you get to loosen up. If you were the class clown, you get to try being serious.
    Treat every class as if it's important. You never can tell. Even if you don't become an astronomer, that astronomy class that filled a requirement may turn out to be valuable. You'll acquire study skills that will help you in the next class. Or some star-filled night you may lie on the grass with your children and teach them about the wonders of this universe.
    Have faith in yourself. Most wonderful, successful people never went to the stage for an award. Many were a lot like you. They kept their minds and hearts open, found a niche, and made the most of it.
    So can you. Congratulations.

    Thursday, April 21, 2016

    Helping Kids Reinterpret a Problem Situation

    In working with parents this is a chapter from my book that I often share and get consistent feedback that it has helped.  

    Helping kids frame an experience

             One of the most powerful ways that a parent can help a child is by helping the child properly frame an experience, especially an unpleasant one. After 30 years of working with parents this has come to be one of the most useful concepts.  It allows a child to interpret an experience in a way that does not amplify the feeling of hurt, of being a victim or powerless.
             One common situation where this can apply is when a child is being bothered by another. We are sometimes too quick to label such behavior as bullying. If it is, we should address it fully, but it is often bothersome, teasing or annoying behavior.
             An example of this occurred when a friend’s first grade daughter reported that some of the girls in another first grade were making faces at her and making negative comments about the way she did the bars on the play structure. I urged the woman to speak with the teacher to simply make her aware so that she could remind all children of the unacceptable nature of such behavior.
    In addition to that, the mother went to the playground with her daughter on the weekend. She was thinking the girl might benefit from a little practice, so she could feel more confident on the bars. What the mother actually discovered was that her daughter was able to do 2 rungs per swing, better than the other children.
    This changed the way she helped her daughter. It was an opportunity to offer her daughter guidance on how to interpret the experience. She explained that sometimes, even if you do something well, it is different from another person and the only reaction they know how to have is to criticize your way. The girl was bright and able to understand that sometimes we have to be patient with others as they learn that to be different does not really warrant criticism. This understanding will serve her well as she navigates the complicated world of girldom.
             Whether we call it relabeling, reframing or reinterpreting it is a great habit and great gift to give a child, especially since so many social encounters can be vague or ambiguous.
    Another situation where this approach can be helpful is where the child has a very strict or critical teacher. Often the teacher’s style is the issue rather than the content. This insight can be very helpful to the child. One such situation occurred with a sensitive little second grade boy. His mother made an appointment because he was, for the first time, feeling very discouraged and uneasy about school.
    He was a good kid and a good student, but the teacher tended to be quite stern and her feedback was often very clipped. She didn’t offer a lot of smiles or encouragement.  I knew this woman to be an excellent teacher, serious and dedicated but a little harsh sometimes with the kids. 
    Our work took a few sessions, both with Mom in attendance, and our approach was “it’s just information.” Through discussion and examples we helped him reframe her input in a less personally crushing way. The boy was eventually able to see that even though some people send a message in a gentle way and some in a stern way, neither is a judgment of us as a person. It’s just information.
    Fortunately the school that I worked at then had teachers of all kinds. Some ebullient, some reserved and some in between. The boy was encouraged to observe the feedback he heard each week. For example, running in the hall, getting books out too slowly, not putting materials away. From these he was to extract “the information.”
    This approach helped reduce the anxiety he was feeling in class. Additionally he learned that by seeing it as just information it was indeed important to extract the information and then adjust his behavior accordingly.
    Another example of this occurred when a fourth grade girl Lilly, was feeling very rejected by her friend Bella. The girls often played together on the weekends, but at school Bella seldom played with her and was, to a great extent, taken over by another girl. Lilly’s mother was having a dilemma because she had often had Bella over and made many nice play dates for the girls with crafts, cooking and other creative activities.
        The mother was also feeling a little hurt, wondering if she should continue to provide such nice events when the daughter was often being left out by this friend at school. We spent just one session together and I suggested that she frame the situation as, “Some friends we spend a lot of time with at school and some people are more ‘weekend friends’ where there is not the distraction or pull by other friends or activities.” With the label “weekend friend” the girl was asked if she wanted to continue having Bella as a weekend friend even though she didn’t always treat her like a good friend at school. Lilly took just a minute to decide that the “weekend friend’ arrangement was preferable to punishing the friend by discontinuing the wonderful craft Saturdays.  It worked quite well because Lilly was able to frame it as just one of the ways friends can be rather than some big rejection.
    I saw the mother many years later and she was eager to share that she was glad she had let Lilly decide. The arrangement made for very nice weekend activities even though the friendship at school had its ups and downs. 10 years later the girls were at different colleges, but hey were in constant communication and spent every vacation together. She was sure they’d be friends forever.

    There are children who are natural “awfulizers” and tend to perceive in an unfavorable way. They may need a little more help with this tendency, but most kids need it at some time. It’s important to first acknowledge and not dismiss the emotion. Dismissing may simply cause the child to hold even more to their interpretation, so that the parent understands and responds to the emotions. Clever parents can also highlight the reframing skill by pointing it out in their own experience.  It’s a simple task to just point out to the child an event where they decided to perceive it in a positive or at least a not too negative way. Sometimes as we try to be good models for our children we even get the additional benefit of positive changes in our own outlook.