Generous Exclusion & the Art of Family Management

I heard a fascinating piece on NPR recently about “generous exclusion,” a theory that pushes back against the tendency many of us have to be as inclusive as possible. The theory claims that sometimes excluding people is actually a benevolent act; that being overly inclusive is often an impediment to productivity and is, therefore, ultimately bad for all involved.

The idea is that in a group process there are core individuals upon whom the work truly depends – the inner circle – and others who arguably could be included, but who are actually only tangentially qualified or needed. When these non-critical members participate the focus shifts, however imperceptibly it may seem, to supporting their needs instead of directly confronting the task at hand.

The assumption is that the effective resolution of a task is often universally beneficial, meaning those excluded are actually better served in the long run by exclusion. What may appear to be an insulting rejection of their presence is actually an act of kindness.

Generous exclusion can be a pretty tough pill to swallow if you are among the excluded. Nobody likes to be told, “it’s for your own good.” Nobody wants to think of himself or herself as a superfluous distraction who actually depletes rather than adds value. But I think the theory holds water, and I like the concept of assessing the impact of exclusion not just on a micro interpersonal level, as we so often do, but also on a macro system-wide level.

Naturally, my first instinct was to think about this from a professional angle. We’ve all been in bloated meetings where there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen for real work to get done. Recently, though, I’ve been more interested in how the idea of generous exclusion can be applied to family life and parenting.

I tend to be envious of families who seem happy to do everything together. I marvel at their apparent cohesiveness. I wonder if my disinterest in doing everything together says something negative about me and/or our family dynamic. At that same time, I’m entirely floored and confused when I hear friends tell me that they’ve never hired a babysitter. That is unimaginable to me.

Listen, if always being together works for you, that’s amazing. Who am I to judge? It does not, though, work for us.

The entire project of raising a family is hard work, but is it work that must always be done together? Does intensive togetherness always best serve the individual members of the team? Must children always be part of the picture? Must partners always do things together? What important family work is not getting done, or not getting done well, because so much time and attention is being directed towards a needy member of the team, whomever that might be in any given scenario?

I think generous exclusion is a useful framework to think about these questions.

Families have many concrete tasks, but the work of a family is not always about specific tasks. Sometimes it is simply about being happy and healthy 1) for its own sake and 2) so that one can be most present and can best contribute to the family dynamic when being together is required.

I think we too often fail to appreciate that preemptively excluding ourselves, our partner or our children from a given scenario might actually prove to be better for the family in the long run even if it seems difficult or cruel in the moment. Excluding yourself, or other members of your family, from a dinner, a vacation, a decision making process, may actually be an act of generosity.

I need to think about this more, but I’m wondering if generous exclusion is actually a practice we should actively teach to our children. The trick is, I think, learning to exclude with grace and compassion and not with ill-intent. This is fraught territory, but my sense is that it’s worth it.

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