Friday, January 26, 2007

Honey and Vinegar

Most of my on-campus teaching this year is occurring at a small Roman Catholic college. Though no longer owned and run exclusively by nuns, it still retains a great deal of its character as a religious institution: important occasions are marked by a special mass, and many of the classes are still taught by the Ursuline sisters. The college’s atmosphere and mission reflect an unexpected alliance of feminism and piety: in the main lobby, for instance, the memorial to the victims of the Montreal massacre sits side-by-side this week with a display honouring the memory and example of Angela Merici, founder of the Ursuline order.

I paused by this display on my way home the other day, lured by the free coffee and chocolate-dipped biscuits. As I munched on a white-chocolate cookie, I dutifully read the bristol-board outline of Merici’s achievements. The Ursuline order was founded as an alliance of women working in the community under their own authority. During Merici’s lifetime, at least, these women were not cloistered or placed under the direct supervision of a priest: their mission was to provide education for girls, and they carried out this work by following the Rule of Angela Merici, the first Rule of religious life written by a woman for women.

"A Woman for All Ages," the display was entitled, and indeed Merici represents precisely the blend of progressive feminism and religious conservatism that characterizes the college as a whole. What caught my attention most in the display, however, was the following excerpt from Merici’s teachings: "You will achieve more with gentleness and kindness," she wrote, "than by harsh and cutting rebukes."

Good advice, I thought. Not a new idea, certainly: it has been expressed before as, "A soft answer turneth away wrath," or, more recently, "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." Nevertheless, Merici’s words have the ring of experience: you don’t carve out a newly independent role for women within a male-dominated institution without learning a bit about how to manage people.

As a dyed-in-the-wool conflict avoider, I am always in favour of honey and soft answers, and for the same pragmatic reason as Merici proclaims: they work. Overt anger, even when fully justified, gets results only within a narrow set of circumstances. Within the context of a loving and trusting relationship, anger, when used sparingly enough to be startling, can be powerful. Outside such a context, anger often becomes bullying: it may get results in the short term, but there is always a price to be paid for it.

That’s easy enough to say, of course, when it’s my rights and feelings that I’m protecting. What happens when it’s my children whose ill-treatment deserves a "harsh and cutting rebuke"? Are kindness and gentleness enough when it comes to protecting our children?

I’ve been thinking about this issue since I read Jen’s post about a stranger whose aggressive behaviour frightened her daughter. I’ve thought of it again as I’ve read this discussion of children’s aggression against one another. To what extent does our responsibility to be compassionate end when it is our children who are at stake?

As I commented in response to Jen’s post (and as Andrea points out here), our children need to know that it’s not okay for people to hit, yell at, or insult them; we have a responsibility to show them that such behaviour angers us and should anger them. The challenge, of course, is to balance this responsibility against the equally important task of demonstrating that anger is not always the best or only way to respond to ignorance and discrimination.

When my sister was in elementary school, she excelled on the track. She was a social misfit, having been moved into the General Learning Disability classroom after three years of chaos in the regular stream. For a few classes each week, she’d join her former classmates, exploding into their well-ordered classroom like a red-haired dervish of restless activity. But on track-and-field day, all that excess energy could be harnessed into a burst of pure speed. If she didn’t get distracted by waving to my mother a few yards before the finish line, she would usually place second or third, earning a blue or white ribbon and qualifying for a spot on the relay team. In eight years of elementary-school education, running was the only thing she was ever good at; these ribbons were the only award or recognition she ever received.

For two years in a row, however, the phys-ed teacher Mr. Cooper found an excuse to kick her off the relay team. She missed a practice, he claimed. (Mysteriously, she had never been notified of this practice.) She shouldn’t be on the team, he elaborated later: she might drop the baton.

My mother was angry, in that paralyzed-with-weariness way that people in my family have of being angry. She made a polite phone call, appealed to the teacher's sense of empathy. When politeness failed, she made a slightly more frosty reference to discussing the issue with the principal and/or school board. The word "discrimination" was used. Eventually, Mr. Cooper caved. I don’t know if it was the honey or the shot of vinegar, but he backed down, and my sister ran for the relay team at the regional track-and-field meet for three consecutive years.

And she never dropped the baton.


Mad Hatter said...

Great post. I too have been thinking of these things since reading Andrea's and Jen's posts. The trouble is this: as much as I want to rationalize it all and think through what my responses might be given various situations, I know that if someone affronts my child, my thermometer will explode and it won't be pretty. I come from a long line of red heads (sorry for the slight Sin but I am speaking as one). I am a tried and true hot head. Honestly, I don't know how I will navigate the school system as a parent. My husband and I are in total agreement that I should never be allowed to be a soccer mom. I've already had an "unfortunate" incident with a day care provider (as you might recall). Is there a way to learn calm? Is there a way to exude honey? Sure, I've learned how to behave appropriately in a professional context but when it comes to my kid, I really am at a loss for how I will react or how I will control that reaction.

My vision for the future is that my husband will handle all this (which of course he won't b/c I'm the one with the time and flexibility to be the domestic manager). I, on the other hand, plan to the mother of Liz Rosenberg's Monster Mama.

Christina said...

It's hard for me, when someone does something to hurt or upset my daughter, not to jump to angry right away. It takes a lot of effort to try the diplomatic, gentle approach first. But it often does show better results.

Although not always, and I've had to step in and put on my "angry voice" to deal with situations, too. Once a ~4 year old boy was harrassing Cordy at a playarea, back when she could only crawl. He was playing very rough with her, and I politely asked him to play nice with her, reminding him that she was a baby and he wouldn't want an older kid to play too rough with him.

He ignored me and started getting rougher - trying to drag her the direction he wanted by pulling at her waistband. I asked him to leave her alone, and he refused, saying he didn't want to. He then kicked her and raked his nails down her scalp. At that point, diplomacy flew out the window, I grabbed the kid and pulled him away from Cordy, and threatened him to leave her alone in my best angry voice. It worked, and he left her alone.

(Sadly, his mom wasn't around - she had apparently dumped him in the play area while she shopped.)

The gentle approach does work many times, but I think it is important to be ready to know when to soak 'em in vinegar, too.

Robbin said...

I grew up a rude Yankee. Far more vinegar than honey.

Then I moved to the South.

NOBODY, and I mean nobody, excels at the honey approach better than a woman from the Deep South.

So I like to tell people that I will start a conflict all Southern, and if that doesn't work, I will pull the Yankee out on you.

penelopeto said...

If you fuck with my child, the claws come out. period.

Mimi said...

I would *like* to be calmer and kinder and more laid-back, generally, but I regret that, really, I'm neither calm and reasonable nor angry and effective. I tend to be sarcastic and passive aggressive! The best of both worlds.

Reading about your mom's advocacy on behalf of your sister, and jen's post, I am reminded that I'm going to have to get my act together to advocate for my Miss Baby, because that's my job. All I've managed so far is to get grumbly with my own family about babycare. I'm going to try to develop a big girl voice, polite but firm, rather than my smartass voice, which Pynchon describes as viciously witty, and which I pull out when angered or frustrated by the general incompetence of the world. Not terribly effective.


Beck said...

I find it hard to strike the balance between my mother bear instincts and not to alienating people. My daughter's recent broken arm at school was a big example of this.

Andrea said...

I hope I didn't give the impression that I regularly lose my temper on people who show less than total enlightenment when it comes to Frances' stature. I don't. I think the most emotional I've ever been in person in such a situation could most accurately be described as "curt."

Also, this brings to mind another saying: "you get more with a kind word and a gun than you get with just a kind word." Sometimes people need to know there's steel behind the sweetness. In my case there's no help for it--I could no more sand off all my rough edges than one could round the Rocky Mountains, and any attempt would be painfully obvious and artificial.

But mostly, I think the honeyed approach to conflict resolution is gender-programmed behaviour. I've never heard anyone tell a man that he'd catch more flies with honey than vinegar when he raises his voice, first of all; secondly there's a body of research demonstrating that a person's approach to leadership and conflict resolution depends more upon their perception of how much power they hold in that situation than anything else. A person who perceives that they have the power to effect results will normally not bother to be nice about it. (This was in professional contexts, not personal relationships, if I recall correctly.)

This doesn't mean it's bad or even ineffective (and it certainly doesn't mean it applies to you--it's based on averages, after all)--there are also studies that show that while assertive women get more respect from both men and women, women who phrase their requests softly are more likely to be listened to, while the opposite is true for men, for instance--but I do think it's learned and I think, moreover, that it often reflects learned powerlessness, which is more likely to affect girls than boys.

Also, I think the assumption that anger is either unexpressed or is expressed in bullying behaviour is not true. There is a vast range of expression for any emotion, anger included. Anger at environmental wrong-headedness motivates a great deal of my professional work, which finds expression in stubborness and passion; anger at social injustice spurs my activism, which gets out as writing, mostly. Anger is like pain: it just tells you something is wrong, it doesn't tell you what to do about it. That's what our brains are for. There are a million ways to tactfully, productively, and even kindly, use anger.

NotSoSage said...

If my mother taught me anything, it was how to stick up for her kids...using both honey and vinegar.

One of the things that drove her crazy about the hemophilia community in Canada was that, while the AIDS epidemic was occurring and the Red Cross was steadfastly refusing to listen to the community's voice, and she felt that the community kept trying to use honey over and over again, long past the point where it made no sense.

Vinegar was the only thing that was going to work in the situation and my mom knew it.

I agree with you that honey works well in situations where there is an existing relationship, but sometimes sticking up for our kids means dealing with institutions that have no problem ignoring the honey, even when it's delivered in truckloads.

I have yet to be truly tested in this respect, but I hope that I can ignore my tendency towards honey when the situation calls for more.

Karen said...

Well, I think we're supposed to be mama bears when it's called for. I mean nobody, nobody is going to stand between our kids and the world as it is, unless we do. I think it's the same everywhere, we protect our children from what evils we can, while we can, holding on tight and loose at the same time, knowing the time we have to do this job is limited. School is a great example, my oldest is out there in the wide world of second grade. I'm learning to test the waters with my toes before I go charging in like my heart is telling me too. And it's good, because he's growing up and sometimes people are unkind and he's learning to make choices about that, to advocate for himself with the powers that be in that particular system..and he's making me proud. Having said that, I will give a mommy smack down any old time to the 12 year olds who insist on skateboarding on the under 3 playscape in our 'hood...babies like to play,and I have two babies who have all their fingers and toes intact and I'd like it to stay that way until they are at least big enough to get into their own scrapes (which should be any minute now, as my tot keeps climbing the window ledges like he's in the Rockies.)

bubandpie said...

Such interesting discussion. Feeling angry is, of course, not a bad thing: it can be tremendously motivating, and in many cases it is, I think, an expression of our sense of self-worth. If someone felt no anger in response to abuse or insult, I'd be a little bit worried about that person's self-esteem.

For that reason, there is a responsibility to display anger on behalf of our children (I think my mother often felt guilty for not being angry enough, sometimes, on my sister's behalf). At the same time, I wonder if we give ourselves a free pass when our anger is focused on our children and not on ourselves - it's not selfish anger, so whatever inhibitions we've developed to control anger in defense of ourselves suddenly fall away in response to a threat against our children.

The flip side of the story I told here about my sister is that there were various occasions when she behaved roughly with other children: she poured glue into one friend's shoes, and she was physically rough with other friends. Naturally their parents responded appropriately, and these children didn't come over to play anymore. But I remember vividly how distraught my mother was at these incidents.

I hope that if I'm in a position of needing to protect my children from others, that I can do so in a way that balances their need to see that I'm angry on their behalf with a consideration of the feelings of the other parties involved.

PeanutButtersMum said...

I side with PenelopeTO. I try to use the honey in all other parts of my life, but when it comes to my kid, don't mess with me.

nomotherearth said...

Interesting! I know that I would fight on the Boy's behalf, but I also know that I often get paralyzed in confrontational situations. I get so angry that I can't speak. I have to go away and plan out my verbal response, so that I don't lose control. I hope the Boy will understand that I am fighting for his rights..just maybe not at the exact right moment.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I don't think that in the incident you described, your mother necessarily used vinegar. She approached the person causing a problem for her daughter; that person failed to act; so she escalated the issue. She didn't malign the coach, call him names, threaten to have him fired or threaten to break his legs... She sounds like she behaved pretty well, actually.

I appreciated your clarification. There are often two sides... In my own case my son was being bullied by another kid at daycare, which is terrible, but my son wasn't completely innocent. We needed to work with both kids on what was happening.

bubandpie said...

Andrea - I've been thinking about that stat you mentioned about power. When I'm teaching, I'm in a position of power, and it's certainly true that I don't couch my assignments in "nice" terms - I don't say, "If you wouldn't mind, I'd really appreciate it if you could hand in your essay on Friday" - I just say, "Essays will not be accepted after 11 am on Friday." And I don't get angry if someone fails to comply - I simply give them a grade of zero. In that sense, both anger and diplomacy are strategies that we use to secure compliance - and we need them only when we are feeling, to some degree, powerless.

jen said...

I really like where you went with this. I think in part, my reaction (the post in question) was one of hopeful de-escalation as well - the protection of M at any cost. Angry escalation might exacerbate - or it might cease the situation too - it's one of those heart in the throat momentary judgement calls - not even one you are cognitively choosing, but rather out of flight or fight. Flight (get out of there) is a momentary solution, but what (as you are making me think further) is the longer term message I am sending.

I might well have to do a response to a response in the next few days.

Again, i really like where you went with this.

Mary-LUE said...

Yeah for your sister!

metro mama said...

Baring the claws will hopefully not be my first response (unless warranted), but Cakes will definitely know I've got her back. Grrr.

Kyla said...

Excellent post, B&P! I'm half brain dead at the moment so I cannot add anything, but I'm here reading. The last line was PERFECT!

Veronica Mitchell said...

I have a bad temper, especially with aggressive strangers. One of the hardest things to adapt to in motherhood has been how vulnerable feel when I am with my children, ready to flee and comfort rather than stand and fight. There are just too many factors with my babies present. I don't feel confident I can defend them.

There are a lot of people who only respond to anger. Even Jesus broke out the whip once. My brother's approach in the military is: "There are two ways to motivate people: a pat on the back or a kick in the butt. I try the pat on the back first."

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Well, hold on. There's a difference between issuing a command in a neutral tone -- this is your assignment and it's due Thursday -- and being agressive or full of vinegar. The vinegar example would be, let's see, something like: assignment's due on Thursday and I don't want to hear any complaints ya morons or I'll fail ya for the year!

Vinegar it seems to me comes not from power but from lack of it. You have to issue threats, to try to trap someone with words, because you know otherwise you won't get obedience.

Oh, The Joys said...

Here in the South they say, "You catch more flies with sugar" and I tend to agree.

(Bless their hearts.)

Joker The Lurcher said...

i am afraid where my son is concerned i am a very cross lady if people cause problems. he would never have got into a special school if he hadn't had such an evil cow for a mother. but i do temper it with threats to sue rather than just threats to come round and beat them up which i suppose is something...

Jenifer G. said...

I have wanted to comment so badly but, unfortunately can see so many of the sides presented and kind of agree with several points of view.

This was a great post and the comments were fantastic too.

Overall, I think I am much more honey than vinegar but, I am not sure I want to really put it to the test. I think on a very primitive level we all would protect our children; no matter where we fall on the scale. That said, I am not a fan of confrontation and would most likely avoid it if possible.

Power, I think, affords you the luxury of more honey sometimes, you just don't need the vinegar to get what you want/need. In that sense, asking for what you want, presenting your case in a rational way can be called honey or vinegar depending who is listening.

Personally, I have always gotten much further with honey and have learned that from my hubby. I can be a little it's black or white sometimes; especially if I think I am right. He has been able to show me other sides and think about other people's motives, reasons, etc.

Interesting discussion. Loved it.

Lawyer Mama said...

I know I would have such a hard time being sweet when it comes to my children. For some reason the first instinct is always attack. But your mom's approach is definitely the most effective, especially here in the South. It may be a throwback, but women who are immediately agressive here are likely to be ignored or treated like an unruly child.

bubandpie said...

I'm fascinated by how many people have commented on the Yankee/South angle. Communication styles clearly vary by culture: what's perceived as normal, direct communication in one region would be seen as angry confrontation in another. I wonder where Canada fits in. "Honey" has a nice Southern feel to it - I suppose in Canada we have a kind of maple snow-sugar: a little more icy in our politeness.

KC said...

I love this post. The insight, the relevancy- totally eating it up right now.

I'm in a situation now that has completely frustrated me involving someone not responding when they need to. Each time I feel like resorting to acidic ways, my husband convinces me to stay with the honey approach which has not been working. At a certain point, I think escalation is in order but how fast?

The balance to strike with our children is hard. You want to set a good example, but also make them feel completely worth the intervention.

mamatulip said...

My mother lived by the saying "you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar." I probably could have had it etched on her tombstone, to her sheer delight. It was like a mantra for her.

Because of that, I do try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I try to put my best foot forward, to respect my elders, to consider what might be fuelling someone else's behaviour. But, like Penelopeto said, fuck with my kid and the gloves are off. I'm not a confrontational person at all, but with my kids, all bets are off.

Lady M said...

I've enjoyed reading the comment thread as much as the post! Lots of good thought.

I agree that the power dynamic makes a difference, both in social situations and at the office. At times, a person might need to coax another group to take actions that don't have immediate benefit for that group. At others times, she might have the authority to hand out assignments. At any time, I would expect courtesy, but not necessarily lots of extra kind phrases.

lildb said...



what an a*****e.

sorry, G. I know you dislike the swears, but I couldn't help it.

bubandpie said...

lildb - For a second I thought you meant my mom. LOL. Yeah - swearing's allowed when it comes to Mr. Cooper (and yes, that's his real name). I was thinking of doing a whole post on him - that was the worst thing he ever did, but it was also the tip of the iceberg. Part of the reason I remember the incident so well was that it was my first realization that adult authority givers could be wrong - not mistaken, or guilty of a lapse or error, but wholly, fundamentally wrong in their way of living in the world.