More Thoughts on Doing the Best We can

{I started this post a little over a week ago, after another post got some response surrounding this idea. I’m sorry it took me so long to finish and post it.}

I’ve already talked about this here on my blog. I actually posed the question to all of you and you had A LOT to say on it. The I posted my answer.

I still believe people are doing the best they can. It keeps me out of judgement, and I used to be REALLY good at judgement. Staying out of judgement also keeps me away from the righteous indignation that judgement can engender. Self-righteous anger never did anyone any good.

Believing people are doing the best they can, also gives me hope.

As a middle school teacher I need to believe that people are doing the best they can. If I didn’t, I’d walk around believing that the majority of my students are entitled asshats that are specifically trying to make me miserable. I would believe that their misbehavior is a choice they are purposefully making to disrupt my teaching and thwart the learning of their peers. If I believed that, I wouldn’t have many options, and my entire professional life would feel like a hopeless endeavor.

Instead I choose to believe they are doing the best they can, and recognizing that when they aren’t behaving in a productive way, I need to identify why that is and make changes. Usually a student is misbehaving because they are confused and don’t know what to do or how to do it. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t yet learned how to ignore the impulse to socialize, which is a VERY important need for young adolescents. Once I determine why they might not be meeting my expectations under the current circumstances, I can take action, like provide more scaffolding on the next assignment, or place them at a seat where the urge to talk won’t be so uncontrollable.

If I believe they aren’t doing the best they can, I take it personally. It’s about ME. Or it’s about them being a jerk to me. Or them just being a jerk to everybody. How exactly can I make a difference in a child’s life I believe they are the kind of person who would choose not to the best they can? If I believed that, there would be no way to help them, and I would be hopeless.

I’m relearning the importance of believing that people are doing the best they can at my daughter’s school. As I attempt to increase parent participation it’s so easy to blame nonattendance on the families. Obviously they don’t care, or they’d figure out how to be there. Clearly the ones that don’t come believe education is the job of schools and don’t think they should have to do anything to support their kids’ education. I’ve heard people say all of these things before. Even when they mention valid reasons families might not attend parent-teacher conferences or other important school functions (the parents are working two jobs, or don’t have a car and live far from the school, or can’t arrange childcare for younger siblings), there is a linger judgement that these parents aren’t trying hard enough, and their children are suffering for it.

If I really believed that certain parents aren’t going to do their best for their children, there would be no point in trying to make positive changes at my daughter’s school.

But I choose not to believe that. I choose to believe that parents are doing the best they can. If I believe that, then I can’t just assume they don’t care enough to support their children’s educations. I have to believe something else is standing in the way of them being good advocates for their kids at school.

It has taken a lot of soul searching for me to check my white, upper middle class privilege and recognize how EASY it is for me to advocate for my children. I know how the system works. I know what to say and to whom I should say it. I know what questions to ask and how and when to ask them. I know who else to go to if I don’t at first get the answer I want. Even if I weren’t a teacher, and didn’t have intimate knowledge of the inner-workings of the public school system, I have friends (and parents) who do. I am confident that if my daughter’s placement weren’t working, I could get her transferred to another school. I am confident that I can be an effective advocate for my daughter’s success in school.

Yes I am confident, and yet there are times when even I am unsure of what to do or how to do it. Even though I am a teacher and I know every important person at my daughter’s school, I still struggle sometimes wondering if I should voice a concern and what might be the best way to voice it. If even I doubt myself, I can only imagine how parents who do not have the knowledge and skills that I have, feel when it comes to advocating for their children.

There are so many valid reasons why parents don’t advocate effectively for their children. They don’t speak the language. They work two jobs. They are caring for an aging parent, or a mentally ill sibling, or both. They didn’t complete high school (or middle, or elementary school) and don’t feel comfortable at school. They had a really negative experience with the school system and don’t believe it will treat their children any better. There are literally countless reasons why some parents don’t make the choices other, more involved parents, make.

So does that mean they get a pass? That we accept they are doing the best they can and their best isn’t good enough?

I choose to believe that people are doing the best the can, AND that they want to do better. I believe that we need to work to give people the tools and supports to do better.

Again, this does not mean that people aren’t responsible for their actions. There need to be consequences. But I believe we are better able to provide more effective consequences if we believe someone is doing their best, than we do if we believe they are choosing to make poor choices, because they just don’t care to make better ones. If we approach a person with compassion instead of judgement, or resentment (both highly probable reactions if we believe someone is purposefully choosing not to do the best they can), we are much better able to accurately identify ways we can help, and implement those strategies effectively.

If I believe people are doing the best they can, I can better judge what they are actually capable of, and make more informed decisions about how to proceed. If I approach a situation with compassion instead of resentment, I have a much better chance of recognizing it for what it is and not listen to the story my hurt feelings has conjured up.

So yes, I choose to believe that people are doing the best they can, because for me, the alternative is creates too much opportunity for resentment and self-righteous anger. Some might argue that believing people are doing their best  gives them a pass, but I don’t see it that way. I can uphold my boundaries and advocate for myself even if I believe people are doing their best. In fact, I think I am better able to make the right choices for myself with this world view. If I think someone is NOT doing the best they can, then they might, at any moment, be moved to do better. That might give me the false belief that THEY will change, without anything else changing around them (which is HIGHLY unlikely). If I believe someone is doing their best, and their best isn’t good enough, either immediately or long term, I can make decisions with a better understanding of what that person is capable of, AND my own best interest in mind.

Has your view on this topic changed over time? How does your belief about this facet of humanity serve you?




  1. I hadn’t read or commented on your prior post, and I hate to take the “con” position with my first comment. . . but I *don’t* believe that everyone is doing the best s/he can. I mean, just judging by myself — someone with mostly good intentions and reasonable tools for action — I don’t do my best all the time. Some days I am tired, or grouchy, or just feeling lazy, and I know I could do better.

    I don’t really judge others — their lives and their choices generally don’t affect me, so why should I care what they do — and I don’t know that believing that others are doing their best would make me judge them less, if I had a firm belief that their “best” just wasn’t good enough. (Example: people with mental illness who genuinely lack the tools to be good parents can still do irreparable harm to their children, and there is nothing about that situation that is OK.)

    1. “Some days I am tired, or grouchy, or just feeling lazy, and I know I could do better.” <-- But maybe on those days, when you are feeling that way, what you are doing is your best... That is how I like to think about it. And honestly this helps me too, because if I take the stance that I could always do better, then "doing my best" is always about my willpower or determination. Except will-power is not an infinite thing. We do get tired. We do feel sick. We do have limits on what we are capable of. And if I believe that at any given time I'm doing the best I can, and I see myself NOT doing what I think I should be able to do, or simply want to accomplish, then I look at how I can better support myself and my best intentions. I can also be more accurate in determining what I'm really able to accomplish. Of course we can always look at an area of our life and say we can do better, but maybe we can't do better there if we are putting energy and effort in to so many other things. Like I feel like I fail miserably on the preparing food for my family front. This is an area of parenting (and marriage) that makes me feel like I'm not doing my best. One could EASILY argue that I'm not doing my best there. But the reality is I don't have a lot of practice at it. I haven't spent the time to develop the skills needed to be successful in the kitchen day after day when I come home from work and need to accommodate two small children's needs. But the reason I haven't developed those skills is not because I don't care, it's because I care about other things more. And it's HARD to start doing something you aren't very good at, and don't like to do. If I believe I'm simply not doing the best I can, then I feel bad about myself and probably don't make changes. If I feel like I am doing the best I can, I recognize I need a lot of support around this area, would need to make it a major focus for a couple of months and would need a lot of resources to get good at it. I don't know if that mindset is necessary for some people to provide themselves, and others, the right supports. But it is for me.

      1. But doesn’t that just devolve into a bottomless pit of doing their best at doing their best and doing their best at doing their best? I get that people find it helpful to maintain this type of belief, but I think it falls apart if you really examine it.

        1. I don’t think it falls into a cycle of people doing their best at doing their best. And I don’t think it falls apart if you examine it. I guess my question would be, if people are not doing their best just because they don’t want to, how do we ask or expect them to do better? Is the assumption that they can be moved to do their best under the right circumstances or with the right motivation? Or is their disinterest in doing their best an unalterable character flaw?

          1. I think it could be either one, depending on the individual. I think it’s important to try and tell the difference because that informs our next choices.

            If we pretend like they are doing their best even when they aren’t, that can take us on a course of action that is not the best choice for the individual circumstances.

    2. Also, in response to the example about parents with mental illness who can’t provide adequately for their children: believing they are doing their best, doesn’t excuse them from not being adequate parents. Steps need to be taken if a parent’s best is not good enough for his or her children. To believe someone is doing their best doesn’t give them a free pass or mean they aren’t accountable for their actions.

  2. I followed last week’s discussion with interest and am glad you are back on the topic. I had not yet found you in 2015 for the original discussion so glad you posted.

    Before getting into your actual question (sorry, I know?!) , I thought it might be interesting to discuss the consequence of thinking as Brene Brown does. There seems to be this idea in last week’s responses that if you accept her idea that people are doing the best they can with their given tools at any moment, you are letting someone off the hook, or that you are staying in relationships because you are hoping for better, or that someone can get better tools and improve, etc. I don’t think she’s saying anything of the sort. I interpreted her as saying that if you think that someone is doing the best they can, you just accept them as they are (without hoping for improvement, giving them a pass, etc) and then you decide whether their “best they can” is actually good enough for you. And it is perfectly okay to decide that that relationship needs to end, change, etc. No one is absolved of their [bad] behavior. You are out of the back-and-forth on what is better behavior and whether to expect it.

    1. ” I interpreted her as saying that if you think that someone is doing the best they can, you just accept them as they are (without hoping for improvement, giving them a pass, etc) and then you decide whether their “best they can” is actually good enough for you.” <-- Yes. This. Exactly. I tried to present this point but I didn't do it as clearly as you did. Thank you.

    2. How can you be out of the back-and-forth, and at the same time not letting them off the hook? That does not make any sense to me. I honestly am baffled.

      1. Because you are not focusing on moral, whether they can do better, their refusal to better. You step out of all of that and say – here is where we are, is this good enough?

        1. I don’t follow at all. If it isn’t good enough, what then? Abandon the relationship?

          I think relationships in which someone’s best just isn’t very good are fundamentally different from relationships in which someone chooses not to do their best. The difference is that the first relationship is respectful and the second is not. That is extremely important to me on a philosophical and practical level. Why would I want to step out of it?

          1. You drop the relationship because it isn’t what you need? You drop expectations and see if the relationship still feels okay.

  3. So I generally agree with the notion in your post—some parents work 2 jobs etc and can’t make it to parent teacher conferences which (at least at our school) are held in the early afternoon when most people are at work.

    I still struggle tho with assuming all people are doing their best. I have/had relatives with some serious issues that directly affect/affected others. I view some of the issues as self-imposed. It’s very frustrating when the person clearly knows their actions are problematic (bc there are some consequences to them—even if not fully borne, and clearly consequences to others) yet they have no desire to change. And sometimes you can’t simply decide someone’s best isn’t good enough and cut them out of your life, eg when you’re a child. Or even when you’re an adult sometimes the person is an albatross around your neck.

    1. I totally understand where you are coming from. I struggle with it too sometimes. I have close relatives whose attitudes and actions are really hard for me to understand. But I try hard to believe they are doing their best, because I do believe it is the most productive mindset for me personally.

      1. But why must our feelings and opinions be altered so that they are maximally “productive”? I would rather believe what I actually think is true, not psych myself into thinking something I don’t actually believe because it makes someone else’s life, or my own life easier. I know we can’t ever “really” know if someone is doing their best, but in the face of compelling evidence that they are not, I’m gonna call it as I see it.

        I believe truth, candor, and not BS-ing ourselves or anyone else, is the most respectful, honest, and “productive” choice in the long run. And the most fair to those who are being harmed.

    2. In your example with the person (Person #1) not able to cut the other person (person #2) out of their life, how does person #1 benefit by assuming that person #2 is not doing the best they can at that time?

      1. Person #1 benefits by acknowledging to herself the reality of the situation, which enables her to make good decisions that are based on reality and not wishful thinking. And Person #1 maintains her self-respect.

        1. Acknowledge the reality? All you know is the crummy behavior. You don’t actually know the other person’s reality or ability to do better. Not following the part about self respect. Sounds like we are back to last week’s discussion where you seemed to be conflating giving people the benefit of the doubt and actually being okay with their behavior. Not the same thing at all.

          1. We can never truly know, but sometimes one has to make a decision. For example, am I being treated badly by a husband who could do better but just does not care? Or is he trying and I should stay and try to work on the marriage? In either scenario I am not ok with the behavior. But my assessment of the situation affects my choices.

          2. The self-respect part is that if I manipulate my own thinking so that I can tolerate relationships with people who treat me badly, it will come at the cost of my self-respect. I may be stuck dealing with bad behaviors for various reasons, but I’m not willing to pretend things that are not true (which is different from the benefit of the doubt–sometimes there is no doubt). I owe it to myself to be clear-eyed amd acknowledge reality even if it does not change, and this is more important to me than having feelings that are “productive”, whatever that even means. It also leads to better personal choices.

            I think a lot of this is about people trying to convince themselves that relationships are better than they really are, because facing the truth would be harder.

            1. Ok, we just fundamentally disagree. I don’t think by saying people are doing the best they can convinces anyone relationships are better. In your example, I see the outcomes with the husband being the same, actually. One version you make the same choice with compassion and dropping a lot of anger and acrimony.

              1. No, one us a relationship in which he shows care and respect for me by doing his best even though it isn’t very good, and the other is lacking in care, respect, and effort. Do intentions not matter at all?

                I don’t think I would necessarily make the same choice. The respect matters a lot to me.

      2. There’s no benefit. It’s a shitty situation with no remedy. I’m not talking a marriage or friendship where theoretically you could leave. And I don’t see any benefit in being a Pollyanna. To me that’s like the people that say “it’s god’s will” when something horrible like a baby dying happens. Does not give me comfort.

        1. If judging the efforts of others is serving you, by all means, keep doing it. I will keep my Pollyanna attitude, because it is what serve me.

  4. The way I see it, believing people are NOT doing the best they can involves blame. Blame is a response borne out of anger, and anger is not an emotion that facilitates effective assessment of a situation or decision making surrounding the situation. I think a person can believe someone is doing the best they can AND maintain one’s self-respect. I don’t really understand why the two have to be mutually exclusive.

    1. Because sometimes people are really, really not doing their best. I am fine giving the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes there is not doubt. To try and convince myself of things that are not true would not be respecting myself.

      Sometimes a person really is at fault. I try not to get angry about it, but sometimes the bottom line is that they fell short. I don’t think it’s good to stifle acknowledgement of that reality just because it is sometimes accompanied by anger. It can also be accompanied by other emotions, such as the peace and relief from cognitive dissonance that come from seeing things clearly.

      1. Somebody can be doing their best and fall short. It happens all the time. And I don’t think you can be angry and at peace in the same moment. I don’t think you can feel anger and resentment about a situation and see it clearly. I know I can’t do it, but maybe you can.

        1. That is not what I meant. Sometimes people are not doing their best. We can’t always tell the difference, but sometimes we can. And sometimes the result of acknowledging that someone is not doing their best, is not anger, but instead peace and clarity.

          More broadly, I think it is important to acknowledge and truth, even if it does involve some anger or other “unproductive” emotion. If it’s true, it’s true regardless of the emotions of the person saying it.

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