Wednesday, June 19, 2013

If you give an inch, will they take a mile?


It hits out of the blue.  “I want jelly beans for dinner!”   Or, “I don’t want to go to school today!” Perhaps more than a demand it’s a simple request, “May I sleep in your room tonight?”

Your gut tightens haunted by the messages you’ve heard over and over again:

  • Give an inch and they’ll take a mile.
  • Be consistent. 
  • Don’t start a bad habit. 
  • Worse yet, you know if you say, “No” odds are there is going to be a major meltdown. 

But if you say, “Yes” are you giving in?
Are you a wimp?  Is this a battle worth fighting?

You’re determined to say “no” when you suddenly remember reading Michael Perry’s memoir Population: 485 about life in a small Wisconsin town, in which he vividly describes the pleasure of Sunday dinners during his childhood.  No one remembered quite how it had begun but every Sunday night his mother pulled out the popcorn popper, salt shaker, butter and bowls and began popping corn.  Family and friends dropped in knowing what was being served.  Mind you no other night offered the same menu.  The tradition became so strong and enjoyable that even 20 year later he still found himself, often with ten other family members and friends, returning to his mother’s home for a Sunday supper that consisted of only popcorn.  It makes you wonder, could one jelly bean really matter?  Is it possible to have a dinner of jelly beans and not begin an unending power struggle?  

Can sometimes saying “yes” potentially turn into a delightful family tradition? 

In How Children Succeed, author Paul Tough describes critical character traits for success.

One of them is flexible thinking; the ability to think out of the box and come up with creative solutions.  It is a learned skill.  One that is essential for finding win/win solutions in a problem-solving family.  

But how do you teach it without being taken for a ride?  

·                     One key factor is understanding that there is a developmental aspect to flexible thinking.  

The first step is learning how to make a choice.  So if you are the parent of a toddler and are flinching at the very thought of “flexible thinking” know your intuition is correct.  Toddlers are learning what the rules are but they can also learn about choices. So before you say, “No,” or respond at all it’s critical to STOP and THINK. You can even say to your child, “Let me think about that for a moment.”  Setting an example and teaching her about impulse control is another vital character trait.  Once you have paused, review your basic expectations.  For Lynn and me our golden rule is: If something is unsafe, hurtful or disrespectful to self, others or the environment it’s our job as the adult to intervene and stop it.  If the behavior or issue doesn’t clearly fall into one of these categories we’re going to find a way to say yes. 

You might think jelly beans for dinner is not healthy!  And right you are.  That’s why you can say “yes” with limited choices.  “Oh, you’d like a jelly bean for dinner.  Okay, would you like a red one or a green one?”  That of course is when he begins shrieking, “I want ten jelly beans!”  But you’ve done your part.  You are being flexible so you can say to him, “I’m working with you and now I need you to work with me.  I said you could have a jelly bean.  Do you want the red one or the green one?  Do you want it next to your vegetables or by your pasta?” 

Of course he’s still shrieking and now you get to teach the skills to develop another crucial character trait – the ability to deal with disappointment.

So you say, “That was disappointing.  That is not what you were thinking.  I can see you are not ready to eat.  Let’s take a few minutes to calm down.”  You might then hold her or let her step away and get her lovie.  When she’s calm you’ll bring her back and you can ask again, “Do you want the red one or the green one?  Do you want it on this side of your plate or that one?” 

When she chooses you can compliment her on being a flexible thinker who is capable and able to handle disappointment and frustration.

  • A second major concern is timing. 
Once you’ve said, “No,” if your child starts to throw a fit, you can’t go back and say, “Fine, what the heck, why not have jelly beans for dinner?  I didn’t want to fight this battle anyway.”  This response simply teaches your child especially a toddler to escalate to get what he wants and he will push for the whole nine yards.  (For an older child you could teach her to say, “Mom/dad,  could we please talk about this,” if you’ve spoken too quickly, but not a young toddler or preschooler.)

  • Preschoolers and older children however have learned about choices. They also have a sense of time and understand “future.”

So for them there are many, many opportunities to teach flexible thinking.  Don’t want to go to school or maybe even more chilling, the question about sleeping in your room?  I’ve written about a family I know who gave their child three “mental health days” each school year.  If he stated he didn’t want to go to school that day, they’d simply say, “Oh, do you want to use one of your mental health days?  Then you’ll have two left.  Or, would you like to save it?”  Never in his 13 years of K-12 education did he ever use all three.   Another family told us about their tradition of First Friday campouts – every first Friday of the month they had a “picnic” in the living room and everyone “camped out” in the parent’s bedroom.  That eliminated the begging to be in their room because they could simply say, “Is it first Friday?”  And if it wasn’t – it was coming soon. 

Now if a child is stating he doesn’t want to go to school every day or begs to sleep with you every night there is an undiscovered fuel source that needs to be addressed.

But if it’s that quick, out of the blue moment, consider it a potential opportunity to teach flexible thinking – a critical life skill.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Collaborating: Finding win/win solutions

Eight-year-old Jason and seven-year-old Matt were fighting over Pokeman cards. “You stole my card!” Jason accused Matt. “I did not! Your brother traded it to me.” After a bit of help sorting out the details it became apparent that Jason’s brother had indeed lifted a card from him and traded it to Matt who from his perspective believed a fair trade had occurred. “How could we make it better?” Lynn had asked them. Protesting and grunting in frustration they brainstormed one idea and then another until finally coming up with an idea that both agreed upon. In the future they would only bring 4 Pokeman cards to school each day in order to make it easier to keep track of them. Matt also decided to return Jason’s card to him. He’d deal with Jason’s brother later!
Now as an adult you might not agree with this solution, but what’s most important is that when allowed to solve the disagreement on their own, with just a bit of guidance, the boys came up with a win/win solution that made both of them happy.

A child’s ability to solve problems with peers depends on practice with you

We tell you this story because we were so impressed with the boys’ ability to solve a complex issue. There were strong emotions in this interaction, even accusations, yet with just a little assistance they were able to calm themselves, brainstorm potential solutions, evaluate them and finally agree on one. There are many adults who could not do what these seven and eight-year-old boys accomplished. How did they get there? They have parents and teachers who have been practicing with them how to be problem solvers who can come up with win/win solutions. Now they are able to carry those skills into other social situations and relationships.

Finding win/win solutions with children occurs when:
  • You take the time to understand what your child is feeling and needing
  • AND know what’s really important to you.
Once interests are clarified there are many potential solutions.
Healthy relationships are reciprocal. I will work with you and I can also expect that you will work with me. This is important to remember because sometimes as a parent we can get skewed to meeting the needs of our children, and forget about our own. Other times we position ourselves as the authority insisting on having things our way, but at the expense of our child’s interests and needs.
Let’s explore a few examples.

Your child wants fruit snacks. It’s 5:00 PM and you will be serving dinner in 30 minutes. You also know that he had fruit snacks an hour ago at his mid-afternoon snack time. What can you do? Pause and think before you respond. What is he feeling or needing? But don’t stop there, now quickly analyze why your first reaction is to simply say, “No.” I suspect it’s because he’s already had them and you want him to eat a nutritious meal when you serve it. So the win/win solution is he gets fruit snacks? No. Okay so he doesn’t get fruit snacks? You win he loses? No. Here’s what it sounds like.
  • “Oh, so you love fruit snacks and really wish you could have some.”
    • (You are identifying his interests and needs.)
    • Now he knows you understand and are listening.
  • “Hmmm, I’m making dinner right now and it’s my job to make certain you get good nutritious food. “
    • (Clarifying what’s really important to you.)
  • What could we do?”
Now the brainstorming begins.
  • If your child suggests, “Give me fruit snacks,” there’s no need to get upset or to immediately say, “No.” Remember you are exploring potential solutions together and will continue until you come up with an idea that satisfies BOTH of you.
  • You do NOT have to give up anything that is important to you.
  • So keep the brainstorming going by responding, “Okay, that’s one idea. Can you think of another? “
  • If your child answers, “No,” you may feel like you’ve smashed into a dead end but again no worries. If he can’t think of any other possibilities you can offer a few of your own.
  • “Well, what if you help me make dinner now and after we’ve eaten you can have fruit snacks as your dessert? We could even draw a plan so you would know when you can have them. The paper is right over there.”
  • Your child grabs the paper and works with you to lay out your plan.
We know you’re thinking this is NOT going to happen.

But it DOES because your child has learned to be flexible and creative through practice with you. He knows that you listen to him and consider his feelings and needs and as a result he’s open to working with you.

Let’s try another.

Your child doesn’t want to put on his coat. You know he’s always hot but you also worry that it is supposed to get colder during the day and you don’t want anyone to think you are being irresponsible by sending your child off without a coat. Do you wrestle him into it? Do you let him go without? What’s his interest? This time it’s probably to be comfortable and he’s warm enough without a coat and old enough to make this judgment. And what’s important to you? You are concerned about the temperature potentially changing and want to be a responsible parent.

So what are three things you could do that allow both of you to have your needs and interests met?
  • What if he takes his coat and puts it in his backpack?
  • What if he ties it around his waist?
  • What if together you check the forecast to find out if it really is supposed to get colder?
When you take the time to understand your child’s interest and pause long enough to clarify your own you begin to realize there are many potential solutions – and so does your child.

Here’s a chart that breaks out a few more for you.
Issue Child interest Parent interest Potential win/win solutions
Jealous of the baby Wanting to be held Trying to feed the baby Setting a timer so he knows when you’ll be finished and can hold him.
Holding him for a few minutes and then making a plan of what he will do while you finish feeding the baby.
Cuddling next to one another and reading while you nurse.
Wants to take something in the car you don’t want him to have in the car. Wanting something to play while riding in the car. Worried it will get lost. Agreeing it can go in the car, but not into the store.
Clarifying that if he fusses when it’s time to leave it in the car that he will be choosing not to take it in the car next time.
Refusing to dress Doesn’t like those “pants” Wanting something to cover her legs. Wear leggings.
Wear high boots.
Wear a long coat.
Coming up with a win/win solution does take some time.
It requires knowing what’s really important to you rather than getting caught in positions or stances of my way or the highway. But by listening to one another, acknowledging what’s important and being respectful, you teach your child to be a flexible and creative problem solver. You empower him, because through practicing with you he is discovering that no matter what happens he can figure out what to do. 

Research supports that children who can come up with 3 alternatives when they hit a roadblock are significantly more likely to achieve their goals. This is a lifelong skill.
So take those few minutes to find that win/win solution.
By doing so you’ll prevent the power struggle of the moment, be building a relationship that keeps you working together even during the tough times AND promotes your child’s success in life.
These are precious, teachable moments.

Grab them!