The Squeaky Wheel Problem, This Is Us, episode 9 &10

We also don’t apply the concept of checkups to raising a child. We often wait until the child’s problem begins “squeaking” loud enough for us to stop and figure out what’s wrong. I think it’s worth exploring the idea of a child check up, to try and help a family stay away from those more difficult squeaky wheel moments.

Ok, so in between making cornbread stuffing and bunch of other food and trying to manage the end of the semester, I have been falling behind on blogging about my favorite Tuesday night TV family! So much happened! I was sad to see how heartbroken Kate was by losing the baby. But did anyone else want to give the healthcare professional a time out for saying that Kate had “no reason why [she] can’t go back to living [her] life?” Uhhh…Guess we know who skipped the training on “What Not to Say to a Woman Who Just Miscarried!” Geez, bedside manner anyone?? But even through all that, Kate fought the urge to binge eat her pain away and I am pretty sure I said a low “Yes!” while applauding in my living room like she just made a winning chess move. I loved the in-depth dives into their junior year in high school and the ways the Big 3 try to handle the important task of college applications. What stood out to me the most was how Jack and Rebecca were trying to juggle three lives along with their own. The coordination and teamwork that it takes to care for and nurture three developing humans is not for the faint of heart. We’ve seen some amazing parenting moves by the Pearson parents, but over these last three episodes I started to see a new truth emerge that I think applies to all parents – you can’t fix a problem if you can’t see it. The Big 3 all had their own problems but the parents didn’t always see them early enough. And with three active children, you have to change your approach if you want to see a problem as it’s brewing.

The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

Chances are, you’ve heard this American proverb. A similar proverb can be found in German, Spanish and Chinese cultures. We know this to mean that if your bicycle wheel starts squeaking, it has a problem and needs to be addressed. Most of the time, you don’t really think about your wheels, you just ride your bike. But when the wheel starts squeaking, it disrupts your ride. You can’t calmly bike down the street anymore, because something is distracting you. You get off and take a closer look at the wheel, finally admitting it has a “problem.” This metaphor is easy to understand, but can indicate a number of issues when we apply it to humans and families.

First, we put all the responsibility on the wheel to get fixed. It has to squeak, or it won’t get noticed. You don’t stop to check on your wheel, it has to ask for your attention. A wheel shouldn’t have to do that. Second, we don’t consider that the wheel probably had a problem and needed fixing far before it started squeaking. But again, we never bothered to check on how the wheel was doing since it wasn’t making any noise. A quiet wheel does not mean a perfectly functioning wheel! If the wheel gets to the point of squeaking, it is already breaking down – it is suffering while it tries to function.

Now, we easily think about how we are asked get regular medical checkups, dental exams and do regular car maintenance. We often don’t do those recommended check ups. We also don’t apply the concept of checkups to raising a child. We often wait until the child’s problem begins “squeaking” loud enough for us to stop and figure out what’s wrong. I think it’s worth exploring the idea of a child check up, to try and help a family stay away from those more difficult squeaky wheel moments.

Conducting Child Check Ups

A key part of this squeaky wheel problem is this – you cannot check on a wheel if you don’t know how the wheel works. Do you know the parts of the wheel? Do you know the differences between the wheels on your bike? Have you stopped to learn what particular needs the back wheel might have vs. the front wheel given the different roles they play? Parents can feel at a loss when making sure their child is doing ok, they don’t know how to check up on their child because they haven’t taken the time to really study how their child works. They may be more likely to think that because the child isn’t “squeaking,” everything must be ok. So, how can we do a child check up? Here are some ideas to start!

Time Together

When I say time together, I mean time where parent is solely focused on the child. Family dinners don’t really count in larger families, because focus on one child is too difficult. This means being more creative to find time together, and making this a clear priority. One thing I noticed about Kate and Rebecca’s relationship is how little time they spend together. Rebecca seems deeply out of touch with her only daughter’s comings and goings. Perhaps this is why she was so surprised to see that Kate was applying to Berklee College of Music. Rebecca spends so little time with Kate that she thinks Kate is lost and has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She sits Kate down and says it’s ok if she doesn’t know her path or passion. Kate, in classic teen girl form, retorts “Wow mom, didn’t know you thought I was passionless.” Rebecca is left stunned and I was left wondering how mom let her daughter’s love of music – something we have seen since she was 9y – slip through the cracks. Of the many possible reasons, a very clear one is that she just did not spend enough time together with Kate to check in on this.

Kevin is another person in the home that has needed more time together with both parents from a very young age. Jack and Rebecca have missed this for various reasons – insecurities over raising Randall, managing three children, his busy high school sports schedule, and their views of masculinity that may have made them think it was ok to leave him alone. Kevin’s check ups have been skipped so often that no one is concerned that he sleeps alone in the family basement. We know from his adulthood that Kevin was “squeaking” for quite some time, but the parents were not able to hear it – mainly because they just didn’t spend any time together with him. Time together means a concerted effort to remove all other distractions and create space to learn about the child and do a check up. So how does a parent spend time?

Have a “Thing”

Spending time together will not be so difficult when parent can find and develop a “thing” they do with their child. It could be as simple as taking a walk together every Thursday after dinner, cooking brunch together on Sundays, or building a storage chest from scratch on Saturdays. The “thing” is something the parent and child do together and is an activity that allows for talking, asking questions, observing and learning. Parents can share stories and children can revel in the one-on-one attention they are getting. The “thing” becomes something only the child and parent share – it becomes special. Children will increase trust and closeness with the parent and the parent will be better able to know potential areas for “squeakiness.”

The “thing” should not include distracting activities like a TV show or movie you watch together, a video game you play or similar ideas. Those activities are great too, but don’t allow for the parent check ups. For example, Kate and Rebecca could have easily developed a “thing” for music – maybe they attend a weekly amateur night where new singers are featured and discuss who they like or didn’t like. Imagine the things Rebecca could learn from Kate’s interests and how supported Kate could feel. Kate would have a chance to hear about her mother’s hardships in trying to pursue music as a career and Rebecca could beam with pride over her daughter’s talents and unique opinions.

I really loved how Jack began to take Randall to a Black owned dojo in Season 1 so that Randall could see and interact with other Black males. We saw a beautiful display of love and support between the two during their first class, but we don’t really learn how long Jack and Randall attended the classes. That would have been a wonderful “thing” they could have shared together. Perhaps, if they had kept up their attendance at the dojo, Jack would not have been so surprised to hear how Randall has felt like an outsider all of his life and why he was so interested in attending Howard University.

Which leads me to a final idea for doing a child check ups. Taking time to check up on oneself.

Self Reflection

The Pearson parents are amazing, we can see this. And as much as they are open to learning about themselves and working on their flaws, they have many blindspots that have long-term impacts on the Big 3. Part of a child check up is making sure you are aware of yourself. How can you fix the “squeaky wheel” for your child when you cannot address your own shortcomings? Is the parent aware of his or her own history and experiences and how they may impact how they interact with their child? Are there habits the parent is inadvertently teaching their child? This can be discovered through self-reflection. Activities like personal journaling, talking with a spouse and therapy are all great ways to begin self-reflection to better your parenting.

We could argue that perhaps Kate would have shared her love of music with her mother if there wasn’t such a strong history of Rebecca being judgmental and perfectionistic about her daughter’s talent. Kate had endured so many years of feeling like a failure that she began to hide her interest and her talent from her mother to avoid disappointing her. If Rebecca had taken a little time to reflect on her own feelings about her singing past and her own relationship with her mother she may have been able to catch her hypercritical and unsupportive actions sooner.

Jack could have benefited from some self-reflection as well. We at least know self-reflected enough to realize he had an addiction to alcohol and needed to work on this. However, we see an untapped area of self-reflection when it comes to race – even though Jack made sure to be a wonderful father to Randall. Jack did not appear to spend much time reflecting on his own Whiteness and the privilege it affords him in society. For this reason, he was less able to put himself in the shoes Randall who was growing up in a predominantly White neighborhood, in a White family. Jack did not consider what that felt like for Randall until he felt like an outsider on Howard University’s campus. Rather than take the opportunity to self-reflect while on a campus tour, he instead gently confronts Randall for the hesitation in introducing him as his father. Randall has to explain that the way his father felt for a few hours was how he feels every day of his life. What if Jack had this awareness from the first visit to the Black Owned dojo? Perhaps then he and Randall could have developed a “thing” where he could accompany Randall to other classes or programs where Randall could be exposed to people “who look like him” and they both could discuss what they learned about African American culture. Randall had been expressing this desire to see other African Americans from a very young age and the parents had a hard time figuring out how to handle it. Let’s not mention how little self-reflection Rebecca did – which ultimately caused her to keep Randall’s father a secret his whole life! It seemed that once Randall’s academics were found to be a point of strength, the parents ignored this very deep need he continued to express around his identity and birth parents. Deeper self-reflection on their own would have helped them see past this blindspot.

So, those are just some initial ideas on how to do a regular child check up! I suppose these ideas can work for any relationship. Maybe Jack and Rebecca needed to have a “thing” so they could do some husband/wife check ups too. Did you have a “thing” with a caregiver growing up? Do you plan to add in a child check up?

Serious Questions!

Did the fuse box issues cause the house to burn down? Did Jack run back inside the burning house to save Kate’s dog?

Did Kate get into Berklee but decide not to go because of guilt over her father’s death and wanting to care for her mother?

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