Don’t Treat Others as You’d Like to be Treated
Helping Hand Column, November 27, 2007
Even with the best of intentions, you might miss addressing someone’s needs if you only think about what you would want in their place
A colleague in my office was recently shaking her head as she spoke about her children’s reaction to Halloween and all the candy they had collected. She recalled her own experiences as a child—she came from a family with modest means, where all the basic needs were covered but there was little money left over for extras. That meant there were no treats on a regular basis, no dessert, no special clothes, no outings to the movie theatre in town.
She would wait with enormous anticipation for Halloween when there would be an unusual surplus of treats in the house. Every year, she would be disappointed when her mother would limit them to two treats when they returned from trick-or-treating, and then put the rest away to be rationed out over the following months. When her children returned from being out for Halloween this year, she told them they could eat as much candy as they wanted. She could not believe it when they each enjoyed only two or three small treats and then wandered off replete. She had just given them what she would have loved to have had herself—unlimited access to candy—and was stunned at their lack of appreciation of the offer and lack of interest in taking her up on it. Yet, as we discussed it further, she realized her children had regular access to such treats and so did not see her offer as special.
I told her about my “Platinum Rule” that I had created over the years (platinum being more valuable than gold). This Platinum Rule supersedes the Golden Rule that we all learned as children—“Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” All of the great world religions teach such a message, and this forms the basis of our current concepts of human rights and equality. It is an essential moral principle, requiring knowledge, respect, understanding and imagination to place ourselves in the other person’s situation and act in a way we would like to have someone act with us.
Yet, the Golden Rule is not always the best possible mode of action. It is ideal to take it one step further—not just consider what we may need, but to also consider if the recipient needs that same thing, as well as what else the recipient may need more. It accommodates their interests and desires, not ours.
While the Golden Rule states “Treat others as you want to be treated,” the Platinum Rule suggests “Treat others as they want to be treated.”
This was first brought home to me years ago by one of the first families I worked with in my child and family psychiatry training. Here were two well-known and highly respected medical colleagues sitting in front of me, with their sullen and angry 16 year-old son, wondering where they went wrong.
They both came from difficult backgrounds and worked hard to provide a better life for their only son. They gave him all they thought he wanted, privileges and freedoms they could only have dreamed of. He had his own apartment in the basement with a separate entrance, and could come and go as he pleased, with no curfew. He had his own bank account and credit card. They had just bought him a car for his 16th birthday. Yet, here he was, spitting at them: “You don’t care about me. My friend John’s parents care about him. They want him home by 10 and won’t go to sleep until he is safely home. You guys don’t know where I am and couldn’t care less if I was lying dead in a ditch all night long.”
Not only did he not appreciate his privileges, he did not want them and misinterpreted them as a sign of his parents not caring about him—although this could not have been further from the truth. Yet, having been given privileges all his life, he did not need more things; he needed more time and attention from his parents, the commodity he was missing.
I saw this occur in my own family and parenting. I am one of five sisters and would have loved more of my busy mother’s time and attention. When I had my own three sons, I resolved to give them just that.
One evening when the twins were three and their brother was four years old and had just started school, I decided I would give them each a nice long bedtime cuddle, for 20 minutes each. One of the twins loved every minute of it, wanted his head and back rubbed and protested when our time was up, bargaining to have just one more back rub. The other twin enjoyed our time together, seemed happy to get some hugs and chat about the day, and wished me a good night as I got up to leave. I went into my older one’s room and he gave me a hug, and after a couple of minutes asked, “Can you leave now, Mom? I’d like to go to sleep.” I quickly realized it was my need to give them each 20 minutes; that was not in fact what they each wanted or needed. Luckily, they were all able to tell me their differing needs and I was able to hear them.
The Platinum Rule is a rule worth keeping in mind during the holiday season. As I think about gifts to give to friends and family, I try to think about who they are, what they mean to me, and what they may want or need. (The only exception is still giving my sisters things I want . . . so I can borrow them back some time!) In our busy lives, the people we love and care about do not always need more stuff and things. We work hard and earn well; they have most of what they need. They would also appreciate our time, care, help, thoughtfulness and our full attention.
Over the holidays, I encourage you to reach out to family and friends; connect with them; turn off your PalmPilot or BlackBerry and make time to just be with them. The resultant rewards of rich connection will be a mutually treasured gift and will allow you to return to work recharged.
Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.