I’m a psychologist who works with children, teens, and their families. Earlier in my career, when I was a 26 or 27-year old psychologist, folks would look down their noses at me and ask, in a clearly judgmental tone, “Do you have any children?” as if to imply that I couldn’t possibly know what I’m talking about unless I had children. I used to feel sort of threatened by that question because I would think, “How can I know what it’s like? I don’t have children, they’re absolutely right.” However, for the first five years of my practice, I wasn’t married, either, and I did do marital therapy. Occasionally, a couple would ask me, in that same condescending tone, if I was married. Again, I would feel somewhat insecure for a moment, ready to believe that if I wasn’t married, I had no business coaching couples on how to improve, maintain, or repair their relationships. I would always cling to the idea that I still had the education and the credentials that made me perfectly qualified to do marital therapy as well as parent coaching, regardless of my life experiences. I told myself that I would simply have to wait until I became married or a parent to see if I could truly ‘practice what I preach.’
I am now well past my 10th wedding anniversary and I am very aware that the first few years are probably always the best, so the fact that I’m having a satisfying marriage is not proof, in my opinion, that we’re on the right track. However, I am following all the advice that I’ve been giving to clients since 1995 and I still stand by that advice. The only thing that’s changed is that I have a much clearer idea of how hard it is to actually follow that advice. I already knew that it was hard, I could see my clients struggle to do it. Now I’m just sure that I was right when I told them it was going to be hard. This has given me a new take on the “You don’t have kids?” question as well. No, I still don’t have children. However, I now feel much more confident that my advice is probably sound, as was the advice I was giving about marriage. At least I have had numerous opportunities to try out the techniques I recommend to parents, on their very own children.
Now that I have dispatched the insecurity I had about not being married and not having kids and yet, giving out marital and parenting advice, other thoughts now occur to me. Are all gynecologists or obstetricians female? Have all oncologists had cancer? Does your mechanic own the same kind of car you have? Has your orthodontist ever worn braces? Has the clerk at the bookstore read every book she recommends? Has your waitress actually eaten everything on the menu? No. Why doesn’t that bother us? Because good training and common sense can be enough. One does not need life experience in everything to be a good teacher, coach, or therapist. Experience generally enhances the skills of an adequately trained individual, but it is not necessary. It is possible that a lack of experience can indicate good judgment. For example, I wasn’t married until I was over 30 years old. Does that mean I lacked marital experience or, perhaps, does that mean that I lacked divorce experience? I still don’t have any children. Does that mean that I lack parenting experience or that I lack unplanned family experience? Therefore, when you shop around for a therapist, experience is one thing to take into consideration, but do not fail to take into consideration what the lack of certain experiences can mean in terms of common sense and good judgment.