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Helping Your Kids With Their Choices: Getting Beyond Two Choices

Big QuestionI recently came across a list of the top 50 sitcom plots. It was fun to read because I could name several episodes of my childhood shows for each entry. The Cosby Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, Family Ties, Growing Pains, and other “family” sitcoms. They all follow a predictable pattern in which a family problem is solved in 22 minutes. There usually is a problem, misunderstanding, some cover-up or deception, and then the truth and reconciliation.

TV dads on old shows seemed to have a better script than in the modern shows. In the past, dad messed things up and then he fixed things. Now in the modern shows, dad is a bumbling baboon who just messes things up and mom or the kids fix him. I’m not sure how it is in your home, but the truth is that dads and moms play an important role in helping their kids solve problems and make decisions.

Kids regularly have problems or dilemmas, or even a conundrum. I personally like the word conundrum, because it sounds more fun than problem. The issue typically comes to you because they ask for help, you observe them struggling, or it escalates into a battle. If you have more than one kid, all the problems seem to come at the same time.

Our kids tend to approach problems much like adults. They typically are only considering two options. We follow a script that says, “I can do _______ which isn’t good, or I can do _________ which isn’t good either”.

A goal for us as parents is to get beyond only two choices. By nature we tend to horribolize (not a real word) all our problems. When we see things as horrible, there isn’t any room for a good or “acceptable” solution. Henry Cloud, in his book Boundaries for Leaders: Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously in Charge says that when we face big problems we tend to assume the “Three P’s” (The ‘unholy trinity’).

  1. Personal – I’m the problem, the screw-up.
  2. Permanent – Things aren’t ever going to change.
  3. Pervasive – It isn’t just this problem. It’s my friends, my family, my _____ …

Two choices reinforces the 3P’s.

If the Frisbee is stuck in the tree, your kids and their friends have more choices than to stand there and cry, or leave it up there and do something else. They can use a stick to push it out, spray it out with water, cut down the tree … There are always more options, not all good options, but more than two.

Having only two choices won’t break the 3P’s. Two options just feeds into the idea that things are bad and that they’re not going to change. When we start to search for that third choice, something special starts to happen.

First, simply searching for a third option helps us realize that we aren’t screw-ups, but instead are capable of figuring things out. If a parent solves the problem, we only reinforce that they are screw-ups. Forcing the kid to think and be creative sends the message “you are capable”.

Second, the process of finding a third option forces us to believe that things are going to somehow change. The third option typically brings some hope with it.

Finally, the third option gets us out of the pessimistic stage of everything being tainted and wrong. As your kid thinks through options, they discover resources and options which are ready to help them.

I recently read about a little girl with a cleft lip, who had some boys at school make fun of her and pick on her. I can imagine how painful it was for her and for her mom to realize that she couldn’t protect her awesome girl from this sort of pain. This sort of situation comes to us as parents and things seem pretty bleak. Two options come to mind pretty quickly: ignore them or confront them. We aren’t that blunt, but will either give the, “It was wrong of them to hurt you that way and they are wrong. They are bullies that feel good when they hurt people. They don’t know what they are talking about and you just need to ignore them to show them who is strong. They’ll quit when they know they can’t get you mad.” Or the opposite speech, “You know what you should do when they make fun of you, you tell them that they are jerks and should be embarrassed to point out things about someone else when their own faces look like vomit”. Sure your speech might be better and more mature, but I doubt that it will diverge too far from the ignore versus fight options.

I can picture myself as a protective dad wanting to take control of the situation to protect my daughter. However, most of my reactions would only ingrain the 3P’s rather than expose them as lies. As a parent, this is when it will take as much restraint as we can muster just to have a long and personal conversation. One that will encourage a hurting girl to develop a plan for dealing with cruel people.

There are “third options”. I’m not going to name them here because they have to come from the kid being coached by the parent. It won’t be an easy conversation and the third option may not work. Yet, you are laying a pattern which over time will be the foundation for responsibility and growth, rather than being a victim.

Question: How have you experienced the 3P’s and what did you do to break them?