Not the Boss of Me is the theme song of a television show, Malcomb in the Middle. The show is about kids and the song is performed by They Might Be Giants. Here are some lyrics:
Yes, no, maybeI was riding my bike to work when another biker cut me off on the street and said, "When you turn the corner you should really be sure to look to see that nobody's coming. Just be careful, okay?"
I don't know
Can you repeat the question?
You're not the boss of me now
You're not the boss of me now
You're not the boss of me now, and you're not so big.
It was the When you . . . something. . . you should . . . something. . . that got me. It wouldn't get to everyone, but it got to me.
What, like I didn't look? Here's some 20-something kid telling me to look. HE was going too fast on his bike, obviously. Like I need his advice on how to ride a bike?
I'm not going to bore you with the details. It turns out that although I had looked for cars I hadn't looked for bicycles. He came up on me fast, but he had the right of way.
And all he said was, Just be careful, okay?
Outside of my blog I don't tell patients much about me. I don't even tell new patients about the blog any more to tell you the truth (the anonymity feels so good). But there are times when a therapist has a personal life example that packs that perfect punch.
So here's a story I've told over in therapy a hundred times. More or less.
My father is a wonderful guy and he did a great job as a parent and we did what he said we had to do. He said, Shovel snow? We shoveled snow. He said Weed the garden? We weeded the garden until there wasn't a weed in the yard. That sort of thing. In my house you didn't say, When this t.v. show is over I'll get to it. You did it immediately.
Encouraging assertiveness wasn't exactly his bag. He was old school, as many of the people who are still vertical in his age group tend to be. He and my mom have a traditional marriage to this day, except my father does a lot more cooking and quite a bit of work around the house.
When I think back on it I'm sure he really did leave room for us to ask questions about why we had to do certain things his way when he wanted, but we didn't feel comfortable doing that. And to his credit, at every age we were given plenty of room to explore our world, to become independent, confident people.
Anyway, like I said, what he said ruled. My mother didn't usually contradict, although she softened things up. If you've read my posts on structural family therapy then you know that parents should rule. And yet there are different kingdoms, different countries.
Being the boss of your kids can have interesting consequences. We think it better to encourage the kind of dialog that encourages a kid to do the right thing for himself, not for his parents. A kid who isn't bossed tends to be less sensitive to criticism.
It works like this. If you take orders you feel small. If you feel small you feel powerless. If you feel powerless you feel vulnerable. If you feel vulnerable you feel defensive. If you feel defensive you reflexively assert your boundaries at some point, set your limits. You're less open to even innocuous suggestions
as in When you. . .something. . .you should. . .something.
So the story goes that when FD and I had been married about a week the telephone rang. He said, "Get the phone."
Not Would you get the phone, please? Or even, Can you get the phone?
Get the phone.
I think I said the following, loudly. I remember it word for word.
DON'T YOU EVER TELL ME WHAT TO DO. I HAD ENOUGH OF THAT AS A KID.
And I probably said a few more things, but I can't remember them.
Well okay then, he probably replied.
I'm not a yeller, either, but I felt like I'd been hit from behind, attacked. And all he said was, Get the phone.
And I got all defensive. And I knew why. Then today, this kid cuts me off, and in a very sweet, concerned way tells me, Be more careful, and I get all weird like that again.
But I didn't go off on him. I followed him to the light and I asked him to explain to me what happened, and he did and I apologized.
Scary, isn't it? That more than thirty years later, a simple suggestion can still trigger a person like that?
Off the defense,