For those of you who’ve read my previous blog posts, I’m happy to report that I continue to enjoy my new hiking boots. This is excellent news because my husband and I spend a lot of time walking and hiking in the woods. I learn so many things there. It’s like one big metaphor.
For example, a few weeks ago we went for another walk on the trails behind our house. Because of some melting, raining, and refreezing on the paths, we quickly discovered that solid ice lay beneath the few inches of new snow. And a little snow over solid ice screams, “Broken elbow!” to anyone paying (or not paying) attention.
Luckily, we saw that to the immediate left and right of the path there was much more snow and minimal ice. We moved over a bit and continued along in the crunchier breakdown lane of the slick icy highway.
As we made our way home, we noticed a woman heading toward us. She was using walking poles to navigate the icy trail. Her head was down, her steps were hesitant, and every muscle looked tense. We said hello as we passed, but she barely looked up. I don’t blame her. She was on very tricky footing. She wasn’t having fun.
Honestly, I was a bit surprised she hadn’t figured out what we had figured out. But what grabbed me even more as we passed each other? She didn’t notice how we were happily chatting as we walked briskly through the snow just off the beaten path. Because she didn’t and couldn’t look up, she missed this other option.
Perhaps she didn’t know, on her own, that trails are less icy when you move to the side, but she also missed our modeling. Head down, eyes fixed, body tight. Locked in. Fearful and rigid.
When we get locked into a position, stance or perspective—be it based on fear, inexperience, or rigidity of any kind—we remove the opportunity to learn, expand, discover, and problem solve.
Of course, routine has its place. Being organized enough to get out the door on time or pack your bag for hockey or an after school job is a vital skill. Having a system helps! However, adhering to a routine— tightly sticking to the path and fearfully not venturing out of your comfort zone—impedes an even more critical skill: the flexibility to problem solve when that process needs improvising.
Anxious families lean toward rigidity. It’s that need-for-certainty thing, the avoidance of the unexpected. It feels most comforting. It’s also what leads to disconnection, missed opportunities, and even isolation.
I want kids and parents to learn HOW to shift gears when something is not working, or even to simply notice when someone else has figured out a better way and give it a try.
During the Olympics, I asked many of my clients to watch and notice stories of flexibility. Ski events were postponed because of the wind and the racers had to adjust. One poor skater’s costume came undone, and she had to keep going. Another figure skater had a horrible short program, so he adjusted the jumps in his long program to compensate.
How can we teach this to kids?
Cook together without a recipe. Talk at dinner about the “unexpected thing of the day” and how you handled it. (This is a one of my favorite homework assignments to families.)
Think for a moment about the best “tip” someone gave you that made your life better in some way and share it. Speak directly and consistently about the value of flexibility–and then model it whenever possible.
Here’s the language I use to promote flexibility and adjustments:
“Do you know where you might be stuck? What little adjustment can you make that might help? Or who do you need to ask to find out?”
Sometimes it’s an adjustment in the doing, and other times an adjustment in the thinking.
Or deciding your homework will take hours before you even start your homework might be a tired reflex you wish to update. Flexibility in action.
This does not mean we abandon rules and boundaries and structure. Kids should have goals to work toward, and healthy expectations to move them forward. Having a plan is necessary for many things. Routines are valuable.
But we MUST rethink patterns of rigid adherence that impede flexible problem solving. And we need to help children see that the solution is sometimes a mere few inches in either direction.
Our fellow hiker looked determined so I’m guessing she competed her walk; but her steps were small, her body tight, and her focus narrow.
I don’t think she connected to the blue sky or the animal tracks…or the other people around her taking an easier path.
It’s important to learn how to stop anxiety from obstructing your view. There’s a lot of beauty out there.