Pick your battles- and pick your stories!

by Liz on April 8, 2010

This post was inspired by a conversation on Amber Strocel’s blog about crusts. You know- the things you cut off your kid’s sandwiches, or the things you don’t.

So before we go much further, let me ask you a question:

What is your position on crusts?

The kids who eat them and the kids who won’t.  The moms who cut them and the moms who don’t?

Everyone I know has a position.

But here’s a more interesting question:

What’s your story about crusts?

What’s your story about kids who insist on having them cut off? What’s your story about moms who cut or don’t cut them?

Here’s Amber’s take:

my real internal struggle comes over bread crusts. Before I had kids I swore that I would never be the kind of mother who cut the crusts off sandwiches. Cutting off crusts represented drudgery and subverting my desires to someone else’s. I believed that crust-cutting would create demanding, spoiled children. My mother never cut off my crusts, and that made me the person I am today. Or something. It was a theory.

I think this resonated so strongly with me because my story about crusts, the kids who won’t eat them and the moms who cut them was so very similar.

What is so striking is that in just a few sentences, Amber captures a whole lot of story about crusts.

Cutting off crusts=   Drudgery

Subverting my desires

Creates demanding children

Creates spoiled children

(Here’s a thesis project for some graduate student in child development: is it true that children whose mothers cut the crusts off their sandwiches turn out to be picky eaters? Are they more demanding in other areas as well? Is eating crust-free sandwiches correlated with demanding, obnoxious behavior in later life? Are children whose mothers don’t cut crusts more or less likely to suffer from malnutrition in early childhood? Are they more adaptive and well-balanced? Happier, healthier and better-looking?

And for a graduate student in women’s studies: How does crust-cutting behavior correlate with a mother’s other autonomous activity? Inquiring minds want to know!)

I propose these thesis subjects as a joke- but also to point out that we have stories about the alleged meaning and consequences of this behavior, but no actual evidence.

Facts and fictions

Here’s the thing. Whenever something happens, we immediately concoct a story about it. We observe a fact, and immediately come up with some interpretation of that event. It’s just the way our brains work. And this interpretation is a story we tell. We tell ourselves stories to explain what we’re seeing, hearing, experiencing. We tell a story that puts the event in context. We must do these things to make sense of the constant stream of sensory input we receive.

And then we treat our interpretation, our explanation, our story as the Truth.

And then…. We forget that we made the whole thing up. That there might be other possible stories to explain the same data.

All further thoughts, feelings and actions proceed from this (perfectly obvious!) Truth.

Data that appears to conflict with our interpretation might go completely unobserved. If we do see something that seems to conflict with our version of the Truth, it is often written off as insignificant, irrelevant or anomalous.

But as I read the comments following Amber’s post, and composed my own reply, what struck me most was the fact that we all had our stories about crusts, the implications of kids eating/refusing to eat them, and strongly held views on what it meant to be ‘that kind of mom.’

As I wrote in my comments on Amber’s post, I caved rethought my strategy on the whole crust issue when (once again!) theory collided with real life.

I realized that when I left the crusts on, AJ would eat about 3 bites out of the middle and leave the rest of the sandwich untouched. When I cut the crusts off, he’d eat the whole thing.

The thought of wasting food was much more problematic for me than cutting the crusts, so I cut them.

For other commenters, getting their kids to eat something was more important than standing firm on the crust issue.

The point isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong here. The point is that virtually no one was neutral on the issue. We all had our stories. And these stories have legs. They have ramifications for our thoughts, our emotions and our actions.

My story about crusts

The crust issue hit home with me because I always swore that I’d never raise a picky eater. When I stopped to ask myself why, here’s what I saw unfold in my thoughts, my emotions and my actions.

Our stories inform our thoughts

If I cut off the crusts, AJ will be a picky eater for the rest of his life. I’ll have to cook separate meals for the next 18 years. I’ll never get to cook what I want or the way I want. Picky eaters make life more difficult for themselves and for others. And so on…

Our stories impact our emotions

I resent being pushed around by a pint-sized gourmet. I’m irritated by having to expend extra effort to cut off the crusts. I’m resigned to the fact that if I don’t cut them, he won’t eat much of the sandwich. And I’m feeling like a failure because I always said I’d never be ‘that kind of mom’ or raise ‘that kind of kid.’

These thoughts and emotions combine to influence our actions

If my story is that I’m being pushed around by a tiny tyrant, I’m likely to put up a fight, and refuse to comply. Another story says that wasting food, or not having the kid eat is more important than the crusts. If this story is the one I tell, I’d rather cut the crusts than throw away half a sandwich every day, so I’ll cut them. If my story is that I get irritated by cutting the crusts, I might decide to teach him to cut them off himself. If I’m feeling like a failure, because my son won’t eat the crusts despite my best efforts, perhaps I’ll give in on this one, but not one inch on some other issue ‘that kind of mom’ would cave on.  And of course there are many more possibilities…

Again, it’s not about the ‘right answer’ to the crust dilemma- this is an invitation to observe our own story, and the impact that it has on the way we interpret and act on the situations that we face.

As usual I have more to say on this issue- so stay tuned….

Meantime- what’s your story? About crusts or anything else! Please share in the comments!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Amber April 8, 2010 at 10:39 pm

I love this post, and I’m so flattered that I inspired it!

You are bang on about stories. I tell myself a lot of them. I am starting to see that, and see how they influence me. One of the stories that I told myself for the longest time was that I was an introvert. There are a variety of reasons why I believed this, so when I did a Myers-Briggs test and came up solidly extroverted it kind of rocked me. But it also showed me a truth that resonated – I do like to be around people, I just sometimes find it anxiety-provoking. Now, I give myself more opportunities for social interaction, and give myself room to work through my fears, and I really am happier. It’s such a small thing, but it made a big difference in my life to change my story.
.-= Amber´s last blog ..You Really Love Me? =-.

Liz April 11, 2010 at 10:29 pm

You were so articulate about your story about crusts (and it was so similar to mine!) it really struck me! It’s so interesting what happens when we start to notice our stories, never mind changing them the way you did with the introvert/extrovert distinction.

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