I am meeting my friend over coffee when she opens up to me about an exhausting battle of wills she has had that very morning with her 7-year-old son. The boy had gotten a new pair of sneakers, and of course he immediately wanted to wear his new shoes to school the next day. However, the weather had cooled down a great deal during the night, so my friend had offered him winter shoes to wear. This didn’t sit well with the owner of new sneakers. A quarrel ensued, and in the end, both mom and son left home in a huff.
I nod empathetically at my friend’s story, remembering similar situations with my own kid. Where does this stubbornness come from? It’s pretty clear that if the situation changes, then the plan has to change, too!
“The explanation for the child’s conduct may lie in the actions and examples of adults,” says Liisa Ahonen, a new Ph.D. in Education from the University of Tampere.
She has studied the working culture of day cares (the same is true for schools) and has noticed that a general mistake of teachers seems to be a lack of flexibility.
A common situation is, for example, that a teacher has planned out the day and now thinks, “Today, math skills are being practiced.” However, the group is restless, and there are clear signs of the fact that concentration is difficult.
In this scenario, a skillful educator acts according to the situation. Math tasks do not sink into the minds of restless, tired children. Therefore, s/he needs to come up with something else; a Plan B. “Quite often the children’s clear messages aren’t heard, and instead the teacher sticks to the original plan,” Ahonen says.
However, at the same time, the teacher is modeling inflexibility to the children. A similar type of inflexibility is also practiced by parents at home. Why is this? Is it because we want to be consistent as child raisers, and not change plans according to a child’s every whimper? Ahonen points out that consistency and awareness of the negotiating situation aren’t mutually exclusive.
The teacher could change the situation described above in this way: “I notice that you are tired now; today it’s not worthwhile learning math, and we could practice it tomorrow. Let’s just relax now! I can read some fairy tales to you.”
Liisa Ahonen thinks that children who have a lot of defiance and hostility experience difficulty in operating flexibly. They haven’t learned to be resilient. “They express anger and frustration if things don’t go according to plan. It’s as if they are trapped in those thoughts and feelings,” is how Ahonen sums it up.
Mental flexibility, or resilience, is considered to be one of the most important factors for human well-being. American psychiatrist Peter Kramer writes that the opposite of the depression is not happiness, but resilience: the ability to cope with the adversities and frustrations of life without falling apart. An open, adaptable mind sensitive to different situations does best.
Liisa Ahonen provides the following tip: “Flexibility cannot be taught to a child in ways other than by one’s own example, by being resilient oneself when the situation calls for it.”
The ability to recover can be explained to a child with the aid of a rubber band. In a normal situation during the school day, the rubber band is loose and relaxed. When the child encounters negativity, threatening situations or stress, the rubber band will stretch, often to the max. But it doesn’t break, because it is flexible. The rubber band bounces back to its original state after the stress has dissipated. This also occurs when a child has learned flexibility.