Avoid “Should.” Should is a dangerous word in self-esteem, performance, mental health, and relationships. One of my colleagues says that the word “Should” is really an abbreviation of the words Shame and Could. So you take the infinite possibility of the word “could” (I could do this, we could do that, etc.) but add shame to it, so that possibility is couched in judgement. As a result, I don’t let my clients use “should” in therapy sessions. Like a lot of these techniques, I firmly believe that once you start listening for this word, you’ll be amazed how often it appears.
Everyone is guilty of using “should” in conversation, especially when we are upset. When we are upset, we focus more on our deficits and failures and move away from a problem-solving growth mindset. Since gifted kids are remarkably good at ruminating on negative events, we are going to focus on “should” usage that is commonly reported from children in areas of stress relevant to them. “Should” tends to show up in three areas in parenting/teaching gifted kids: 1) goals they wanted to reach, 2) negative social comparisons, and 3) when rules were not followed. I will spend some time in each of the next paragraphs to give examples and strategies to change our approach to these issues.
Allow me to traffic in a cliché for a moment. When I tell people that I work with gifted kids, a common response I get is the well-worn chestnut: “Oh, you mean the kids that freak out when they get a 99 instead of a 100?” Well, yes. And if you haven’t suffered from neurotic perfectionism, you have no idea how debilitating that feeling can be (yet another article idea! You all will be so sick of me!). Gifted kids often use “should” when complaining about not reaching a goal, academic or otherwise. When a gifted kid says, “Well, I should have gotten an A+” it is easy to get caught up in arguing about it. After all, what’s the real difference between a 98 and a 100?
When if we get stuck in whether there is a problem, we end up arguing about semantics. If we join with our students in their distress, we enable ourselves to better help them solve problems. I would suggest replying with: “It sounds like you feel like you could have done better. What could you have done differently?” Notice how we aren’t even using should. What could you have done differently forces our brains into problem-solving mode. Maybe we could have studied more, or harder (or at all). Maybe we had too much on our plates. Maybe we did everything that we could and just had bad luck. These responses all serve to move us forward.
Another area that gifted kids use “should” is in social comparison. These comparisons can either be positive or negative. A negative comparison that I hear often is that gifted kids will ignore their own positive characteristics to wish that they were more like another kid. “I should have a girlfriend like Sam!” “I should be in better shape; everyone else on my dance team is so skinny!” “I should be smart like Shannon; everyone says they are going to Harvard.”
These statements tend to elicit emotional reactions from us as we don’t want to see our kids in pain. Of course they are smart, skinny, and dateable. But we don’t want to dismiss their concerns, even if we are well-intentioned. Replacing “should” in this situation is about reframing the comparison in a positive way. What about them is good? What are their strengths? Why are they doing things differently (as opposed to worse) than their peers? Is there anything that they would like to change? If so, how do we do so? Help them move on.
Positive social comparisons often coincide with our third category: “should” usage around rules being not followed. Raise your (virtual) hand if your gifted kids have ever said, “Those other people [peers, students, etc.] should just be better behaved.” We have all felt that way at some point; it is a normal human reaction. But if we engage in social judgment, we leave ourselves open to a vital bias: we never know what other people know or what they are going through.
Rules exist and are meant to be followed. But we make expectations to them all the time! Have you ever jaywalked? Run a red light? Listened to illegally downloaded music? Called out in class? Of course we have! (Though, on consultation with my attorney friend from above, I will amend my answer to say “hypothetically.”) Whenever we break a rule, we immediately engage in rationalization to protect our choices: “I was running late.” “I knew the answer and no one else would have.” “The record companies make too much money anyway.” Rationalization behavior is designed to protect our egos from pain. We can do so because we know our whole stories; we are aware of the idiosyncrasies and context that justify our choices.
We fail to extend this seem empathetic courtesy to other people because we do not know their stories or context. It is easy to judge rule-breaking behavior on the surface as something that someone “should” have known or done better. But do we really know what happened? Do we know for sure what that person was taught or not taught, or can or can’t do? If a student with ADHD cannot regulate himself in class and calls out, we don’t mind as much. If a student from a Montessori school comes to a traditional public school and gets up in the middle of history class to go do art, we try to consider context. The point is this: When we reframe another person’s behavior as what they could do, rather than what they should do, we open ourselves to empathy. Gifted kids, who can struggle with perspective taking, may struggle with having the intrinsic version of this skill, so we can use this language to help teach them.
We can also use this language to aid our parenting/teaching techniques. I once had a family in session and they were very upset that their 2e daughter had “acted out” at a family funeral: singing and doing math problems on her calculator. “She should have known better!” They wailed. I think that you can probably guess where this is going. Should she have? Had they ever taken the time to explain to her what the rules of funerals were? Um, no. Had they explored their own feelings over the loss? Um, no. Had they checked to see if she had any electronics before bringing them in? Who has the time?!
When our initial response as teachers and parents is that a kid “should” be doing something or know something, I implore you to take that statement as an opportunity to reflect. Perhaps they did know the expectations and made a poor choice. But perhaps they did not actually know (or needed to be reminded) the rules. “Should” comes from a place of judgement; when we approve feedback situations from a place of judgement, we get oppositional and upset kids. Instead of using should, try to be curious and collaborative; engage in a dialogue about the rules and what the students know and don’t know. When you find areas of less knowledge or skill, take that time to educate the student. I am confident that you will get far better results.
In summation, continued use of “should” can contribute to significant distress inside and outside of the classroom. Replacing this word with more positive terms and approaching can contribute to more emotional regulation and more resilience. It’s something you could try today.