In which I assign positive intent [My Practices of Mothering]

This is part of a series called My Practices of Mothering

Basically, this is the stuff that I do (or try to do) to enjoy and love motherhood. 

The practice of assigning positive intent is, as Fancy Nancy would say, just a fancy way of saying “believe the best.” I try to make my starting point for the day a belief in their goodness, in their love for each other and for our family, in the work that we have already done together towards wholeness.

So when things go pear-shaped, instead of assuming that they are manipulative little buggers out to get their way and rule us all, I choose to believe that their heart is as much for me as mine is for them.

A small example: When Joe was quite a small toddler, I met a scene from a mother-horror movie when I went to wake him from a nap. There was excrement everywhere – on the walls, on the sheets, in his hair. He was rubbing it with his stuffed animals, spreading it everywhere. Part of me wanted to holler at him: WHAT THE CRAP ARE YOU DOING? (Pun unintended, I assure you.)  This was unbelievably gross, he had probably pulled that diaper off himself and was now gleefully making a mess on purpose, painting with it. But then I realised that he was sick, his diaper had been insufficient for the experience and he was actually making an attempt to clean it up. His intent was positive even if the results were, um, absolutely disgusting.

I try to operate from the standpoint that they want to be good and my job is to help them navigate, with grace, the mistakes and missteps that naturally come with the enormous job of growing up to love God and love people well.

I enjoy mothering so much more if I believe we’re all on the same side. It’s not us vs. them in the war of the family. My role here is to help them learn and so if I try to assume that they truly don’t know yet or are still figuring it out. (But even if they are trying to be bad, even if it is manipulation, few people are not disarmed by innocence. And that includes my tinies. If they do something wrong on purpose, gentleness goes a long way to bringing them back around to right living, reconciling them with us and God, much farther than bellowing and isolation and fury.)

When I assign positive intent, I have much more grace, patience and gentleness to offer and I believe that they can sense this change of perspective. It moves us from adversaries to partners or co-operators in their wholeness. But, on the other hand, if I operate from the starting point that they are out to take a mile if I give an inch that is one sure way to make the days very, very, very long.

I enjoy mothering when I believe and hope and love in their personhood. I enjoy my tinies when I notice and talk about the things that are noble, pure, beautiful and good about them. I enjoy mothering when I remember that they really, truly don’t know everything yet, that most of my expectations come with development, and my job is to really, truly, teach them well.

They will learn the big nouns of love, grace, forgiveness, mercy and peace in the way that I handle the small verbs and actions of our life together. And so will I. (I have so much to learn.)

So even if the action is wrong or infuriating, unless otherwise proven, assume that their heart is to love, to please, to help and learn the right way from you.

(Sidenote: I admit that this Practice of Mothering is actually a Practice of Living for me. It’s not exclusive to my tinies and our relationship; in fact, its come in very handy in my dealings with grown-ups.)

Innocent as doves, my luv. Wise as serpents. 

Full list of practices is here.

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  • Alisha

    This is lovely. Thank you for this. I am now a mother of a one year old and trying to figure out this whole discipline thing. This is so helpful, and as a general practice of life, like you said. I have been trying to remember to look into people’s eyes and find That Spirit, rather than looking at only their actions. Great post.

    • Sarah Bessey

      I know – half the time, I don’t know who is raising who here. Thank you!

  • Tab

    Thank you thank you thank you!

  • Jenn

    I agree this comes in very handy with adults too. I find when I stop and try to imagine a bit where people are coming from, kids and adults alike it gives me a minute to calm down and usually a better, more understanding perspective!

    I’ve also notice assigning positive intent can be contagious…if I speak positively about my kids I find my husband is likely to follow suit, or the same at work…if I try and gain perspective on difficult parents it can change the tone the whole unit speak about them with.

    • Sarah Bessey

      It is contagious – and addictive!

  • Kathleen Quiring

    Sarah: I am a brand new reader of your blog and I already LOVE it. You can expect to see me hanging around from now on!! I love your “practices of mothering” and am intent to learn from you. (I’m a new mom to a 2-month-old and am seeking wisdom from more experienced moms, especially those who have chosen attachment-]and non-aggressive parenting styles.

    In regards to this post in particular, I love the story you tell as an example. So often our gut reaction is to assume that children are trying to be “naughty,” which is an unfair assumption and must lead to a loss of trust. Thanks for sharing!

    • Sarah Bessey

      That’s great news, Kathleen! So nice to “meet” you. 


    I love it! I wrote about something similar on my blog, that I got from Positive Parenting on FB.

    • Sarah Bessey

      I don’t know Positive Parenting…will have to look them up now! Thanks for the head’s up.

  • Michael Thompson

    “very handy in my dealings with grown-ups”…How true! How true!

  • Rachel

    sarah, please write a book.

    we’re in the process of trying to become parents. and i’m so scared of being a mummy. it’s a terrifying thing for me…what if i make a mistake? what if i screw up?

    and then i read these posts, and i can breathe again. please write a book? i need a book of your words. 

    • Sarah Bessey

      Oh, darling. You amaze me. Thank you.

      • Rachel

        you are the one that amazes. you don’t sugarcoat. you don’t lie or try to make it harder or easier. you just write as it is. and i need that. i need that precious freedom. 

        oh, i am so afraid of ruining precious little lives with my own brokenness and life in self. i am fallible, but they will be so innocent. i want to raise them well, like my mum did me. like you do with yours. 

  • Anne J

    Love this.  Love this series. Love your heart for your tinies.

  • justamomandmore

    i agree whole-heartedly. if i will step back and assess the situation and the intent of their hearts it makes it so much easier to extend grace. i am learning to respond, not react. they are teaching me so much about my character…and the flaws therein. and they are my greatest grace-givers!

    • Sarah Bessey

      Respond, not react – that’s good, right there.

  • Jenn

    Yes! I do this too… with my littles and the adults around me. It makes some in my extended family look at me like I just told them I was born in a spaceship on Mars – but it makes me feel so much quieter and peaceful within. And my children thrive when given grace, so how could I choose to do otherwise?

    • Sarah Bessey

      Yes! That’s the thing. I don’t know how to raise kids perfectly (I’m still in the trenches) but I know what makes *me* feel more peaceful and quiet. Exactly. Amen.

  • Addie Zierman

    Love this line: “They will learn the big nouns of love, grace, forgiveness, mercy and peace in the way that I handle the small verbs and actions of our life together. And so will I.”

    • Sarah Bessey

      I just love you, Addie.

  • Janae

    Thank you for pointing to another way to approach parenting.
    I’ve decided for myself to assume that if someone is out to get their way it is most likely me (the 30-yr-old who is stuck in her ways) and not my 6-month-old son.  It’s just too convenient for me to blame him when I just don’t want to sacrifice or change my life.
    I’ve loved the parenting series.  Thank you! Janae 

    • Sarah Bessey

      Yes, I found the same thing, Janae. Thank you for coming alongside me, too.

  • Bernard Shuford

    Um, I’m not a mother, but this is really a spark for me. Thank you. Gosh, I gotta lighten up on my two.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Maybe it’s more “parenting” than “mothering” but I get the heebie-jeebies at the thought of doling out parenting adivce like I know what the crap I’m talking about. Ha!

      • Bernard Shuford

        Sometimes sharing what you’re trying is a lot of help to those of us who go from day to day in an absolute fog as to how to help those precious little people become sensible older people so that they can raise the next generation of precious little people… 

  • K

    A friend of mine gave me similar advice when I was having issues with some adults in my life, and it’s affected how I deal with people so much. I often think that if we just took the time to really, earnestly try to understand other people, we’d go a lot farther in solving problems than just getting angry/frustrated/annoyed at the things they say or do. (Even if we don’t agree with them, or if their resulting actions are less than desirable.)

    I’m not a mom but I do hope to be one someday (first I gotta work on finding a hubby), and it encourages me to see your lovely posts about your tinies and how you make it work.

    <3 Kristen

    • Sarah Bessey

      It does help immensely with people, I admit. I learned it before we had our tinies and it applies just as well to them. So you’re right on, sister.

  • Leigh Anne

    So very good!  We often forget that children are learning and can’t do things/don’t have an understanding of the world like we do.  I tell my children I am here to guide them.   And since all behavior has a motivation, it’s far better to look at the motivation than to react to the behavior.  

    • Sarah Bessey

      I love that – here to guide them. That’s a much better way to look at it than “control.” IMO, of course. 😉

  • Marie-Eve

    I just started reading your blog this week and so far so good! Awesome post today and I absolutely agree. 

    • Sarah Bessey

      Thank you so much! and nice ot “meet” you!

  • Patricia

    I love this today.  It really struck ad cord with me.  I have two teenagers, and it can be a struggle to use the positive approach (expecially when THEY are not being nice themselves.)  Instead of feeling guilty, I think I will work on turning myself around first.  Thank you for sharing. 

  • JennyE

    I know you wrote this awhile ago, but I found you through Rachel Held Evans and this post caught my eye as I am currently parenting a three-and-a-half year old girl and a 21-month-old boy.  They are both so smart and creative!  My little girl lives in an imaginary world peopled with mermaids and superheroes and my little boy loves letters and trucks and his sissy in a fierce way.  I have found myself depressed and dissatisfied with much of the current “Christian” advice for parenting which seems to want me to see these sweet little souls as scheming, willful deviants.  My parents, unfortunately, encountered and adopted these strategies when I was entering adolescence.  I know they were terrified for me and did everything out of love, but it caused irreparable damage to our relationship.

    I love your idea of “assigning positive intent”!  Believe it or not, Apple stores (my husband is a manager) use the same phrase to train employees in dealing with conflict with customers or coworkers.  Though I didn’t call it that, I found that a similar strategy was extremely helpful as a high school teacher to deal with misbehaving students. When I first began to have to guide the will of my firstborn, I unfortunately bought into some of the milder forms of “manipulation control” parenting, but every time I “trained” my child in a harsh manner, I felt terrible.  It took awhile for my earlier ideas of assuming the best to assert themselves, and for me to trust my rather sentimental heart, but I am so glad to have found a better way that works well for my family!  I am still forming my parenting paradigm and look forward to reading more of what you have to say!  Thank you for being a gentle and reasonable voice!

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