A few years ago, my daughter opened one of her holiday gifts from us and burst into tears. “It’s not the right one!” she wailed. The crying continued for a while. I experienced my own disappointment. I want my kids to be gracious in both giving and receiving gifts. Watching her behavior that night reminded me of spoiled Nellie on Little House on the Prairie and made me question how well I was doing at this parenting job.
When the intensity of the moment finally passed, we talked as a family about what had happened. I learned more about my daughter and myself. She explained in her own way that her disappointment stemmed not from the fact that she hadn’t received the gift that she had wanted. She understood that sometimes you get things you wish for and sometimes you don’t. She was upset because she believed she was definitely getting what she wanted, and then found out that what she received was different than what she had expected. I learned that opening presents was not the fun activity I thought it would be for my daughter. Given the option, she preferred to know clearly what she was and was not receiving so she would know what to expect and there would be no surprises.
Hmmm. Sound familiar? As adults, how graciously do we deal with outcomes in life that look different than the way we believed something was going to go? When we don’t get the promotion we believed we were slated to receive, when we do get the divorce we never planned to need, when a young loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness despite living a healthy lifestyle, how gracious are we in our response to the situation? It’s not that we don’t believe that these things occur. We get upset from believing things were going to be one way, and then experiencing a radical change in plans that we could not control.
Flexible thinking is one of the traits that has a strong correlation with a person’s level of success in today’s world. The quicker a person can absorb the shock of a game-changing event and can begin thinking of new ways to move forward, the more valuable she is to an organization or team. While my daughter will naturally develop more flexibility in her thinking as she ages, part of my job as her parent is to give her tools and strategies now to actively cultivate flexible thinking.
One of the ways I do this is through teaching my children to practice gratitude. I start with the basics, and model how to do this when things were going well. I ask my kids to name ten things that they are grateful for in that moment, and show them how to use their fingers to keep track.
Once my children have some confidence doing this when things are going well, it is easier to use this strategy when it is most effective—in the times when things are not going the way they want them to go. I model for my young ones how to find ten things, even in the midst of being upset, for which they were still grateful. This exercise trains the brain to shift from focusing on what is not working well to what is working well. This is key in flexible thinking.
Another strategy we practice is shifting perspective. This is a more sophisticated skill, but can still be introduced at a young age through role-play. Sometimes, the person who is upset benefits from taking on a different role in the situation so she can gain perspective. My daughter, for example, can become the parent gifting the child, and I can play the role of the upset-turned-grateful daughter. Other times, it is more effective if a third person takes on the role of coach during the role-play. The coach supports the person in acting out her own role in the situation but with different responses and behaviors. This gives the person a chance to physically feel what flexible thinking looks and sounds like.
Over time, I have learned that one of the best gifts I can give my litte ones is more tools in their flexible thinking toolbox. Life hands us unexpected gifts all the time, and what we do with them is completely up to us.
During the most recent holiday season, the unwrapping of gifts in our home went really well. We did a little ‘life review’ lesson before we opened gifts, and there were no tears in sight. Then, less than a minute after the batteries were placed inside it, someone pushed a button and the brand new remote controlled car soared off the table like a “Thelma and Louise” reenactment. My daughter stared in shock for a moment at the broken gift she had looked forward to for weeks, and burst into tears. I hugged her close and let out a little sigh. Even as we make great progress, life continues to present us with unexpected gifts to help us fill our flexible thinking toolbox.