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A Sibling's Birthday Party: The Limits of Good Intentions

This is a true story, though the names are fictitious.

Siblings Betty and Barney had the closest of relationships growing up in the 1970s. Their four-room flat was sandwiched between Greenpoint Hospital and what was known as Cooper Projects in an ethnically

mixed Brooklyn neighborhood. Two years apart, they walked to school, attended religious education together, and joined their parents on family trips to their Southern roots.

After high school, they took different paths. Betty gravitated towards the visual arts, eventually making specialized jewelry that she consigned to mid-market Manhattan stores. Barney’s proficiency in math and science led him into aerospace engineering at Penn State and a career with NASA.

Each married and had two children. Betty resided in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Barney raised his family a few miles from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Betty had the idea that she would throw a 50th birthday for Barney.

With Barney’s somewhat hesitant okay, Betty planned the party for a fall weekend close to Barney’s actual birthday. The venue would be the home of a family friend in Brooklyn.

Before sending out the invite to family members and friends, Betty showed it to Barney for his approval.

The invitation read:

Join us for Barney’s 50th birthday party!

October 21, 2018, 7:00-10:00 p.m.

Buffet with carving station

Live music and dancing

Since Barney is my friend, he showed me the invitation draft Betty had prepared. I was surprised to hear his subdued tone. Then he shared his negative reaction to the birthday party:

“I don’t really want a party,” he said. “And even if I did, I wouldn’t want the kind of party she’s hosting.”

I asked, “What’s the problem with the party Betty’s planning?”

Barney responded that he’s a morning person and doesn’t like late-night social gatherings. And he wouldn’t want a carving station because he doesn’t eat meat. And he doesn’t like to dance. And he believes the loud music would inhibit conversations.

We talked a bit more, and he mentioned he would be calling Betty to gingerly let her know his concerns about the birthday party.

The situation turned out okay because they ended up laughing about the differences between what she thought would be a great party and what he thought would be a chore to endure. They negotiated an

afternoon social as a compromise.

This event got me thinking about the limits of good intentions in leadership and parenting:

  • Thinking we know what is best for someone even though our knowledge of the other is limited;

  • Playing “matchmaker” as if we know who would make the best fit for a friend or loved one;

  • Believing our kids need us to always be there, when, truth be told, they often wish we would stay available while getting out of the way;

  • Assuming that our employees need our direction more than they actually do, and doubting their ability to figure things out on their own;

  • Thinking that “good intentions” should sufficiently hold us blameless and cover for our unconscious biases and stubborn ignorance, as in:

“I didn’t mean to hurt anyone..." (after drinking and driving, cracking a joke, speaking without thinking)

“I don’t mean to sound racist/sexist/privileged/elitist/ ignorant/prejudiced, but…” (but you do)

“It never crossed my mind that my statement would be taken literally.” (exactly, you didn't think)

I’m left with questions for readers to consider:

What does it take for us to check our good intentions by first seeking more informed data?

How thorough is our thinking before we make conclusions about what’s best for others? What stops us from asking them what they want?

What makes us defend our good intentions even when we have clearly misjudged a person or situation?

Why do we believe we have the right to choose what's best for others?

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