I like to think of myself as a compassionate person, but sometimes my
compassion allowance runs low.  I become too tired or too wrapped up
in my own work and life issues to show compassion to my kids.  That’s
when I lose sight of what I call “the good.”

Before my stepchildren became young adults, we lived together full
time.  As is common with stepfamilies, the relationship tension was a
little edgier a little more often than I notice now that we don’t live
together under one roof. 

During times when my end of the rope came undone, I think my
stepkids often shouldered the impact.  When I unraveled, I became
humorless and controlling.  Never insulting, I hope, but certainly

What I could have used then is some fabulous tool to help me
reconnect with the good in the kids.  A tool, for example, like one I
found just recently. 

Its fancy name is: “naming the positive intent* in your child’s
behavior.”  What is the positive possibility laying within the immature
behavior you find so irritating?  If you could shoot ahead 25 years,
what life skill would have grown out of your stepchild’s current

In Raising a Daughter (yes, I’m mentioning this great book again),
authors Jeanne and Don Elium put together a chart of some immature
behaviors and their possible mature form.  Here are a handful of

Immature Form    Possible Mature Form (Positive Intent)

temper tantrums     self-assertion
whining                   compassion
pouting                   thoughtfulness
laziness                   rich inner life
stinginess               conservation
aloofness                independence
bossiness               leadership abilities
pickiness                discernment
giddiness                zest for life
moodiness              inner searching
secretive ways        healthy privacy and boundaries
conformist             team player

So, the trick is to be able to name the positive intent beneath the
immature behaviors.  Think of this as a puzzle to work on; a challenge
to conquer.  One way to start the puzzle is to name the behavior (for
example, talking back) and then think about what it could blossom into
when she is older (boldness, willingness to speak her mind).

The Eliums also offer examples of autocratic responses to a child’s statement,
followed by responses based on the positive intent.  Here are a few to consider:

Child:  I don’t want to clean up my room.
You (autocratic):  You march in there right now, young lady, and don’t
come out until it’s finished.
You (positive intent): You hate it when I tell you what to do.  You want
to do things your way.

(Does the positive intent mean the child gets away without cleaning
the room?  No.  But it gives you a more communicative entry point by
recognizing that the kid is not just a walking problem – she’s a

Child:  I’m never sitting by Lila at lunch again!
You (autocratic):  It’s not nice to say things like that about your
You (positive intent):  It sounds like Lila might have annoyed or hurt
you.  Let’s talk about it.

Recognizing the positive intent won’t happen overnight, but it certainly
is a step toward helping us refocus on the person instead of on the
problem behavior.  As I’ve said before, humanity breeds humanity. 
Maybe a little positive intent from you will help your stepchildren see
you as a person too.

Mama J (Diane Fromme) is a writer, parent, and stepparent located in
Northern Colorado.  For more information on her stepparenting book,
go to

*In Raising a Daughter, Jeanne and Don Elium footnote Positive Intent
as a phrase used by Vernon Woolf, PhD, in an “Unfolding Potential”
seminar, San Rafael, CA, 17 – 19 Aug. 1990.

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2 Comments on One Way to Find the Good

  1. Mama J says:

    Jeanne Elium, author of Raising a Daughter, wrote in but couldn’t post for some reason. Here’s what she said:

    Dear Mama J!
    Thank you for your beautiful summary of looking for the positive intent in our children’s behavior. These days I believe that we are all called upon to look for “the good” in everyone, especially those who seem to be so different, holding opposing values and goals. Our children need us to model this idea of “the good” now more than ever in a world made fearful with rampant character assassination, blaming, and lies. Understanding that we all want the same things for ourselves and our children—love, safe harbor, and fruitful work—perhaps we will, together, find ways to heal our planet for future generations. Your insightful writing supports this important work. Thank you!

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