Virtue of the month for October 2015: Flexibility
Flexibility is a worthwhile virtue that is often overlooked while we pursue the grander building blocks of character. We might have many admirable qualities, but if we cannot or do not respond well and adapt to the changes that life inevitably delivers, we are diminished. With flexibility (theirs and ours) comes resilience, that splendid quality that allows us to respond positively to whatever comes our way!
Change is not always easy. We get used to our patterns and ways of being. We like predictability. We seek it ourselves and know that children thrive on it. Predictability helps them feel safe and keeps their lives manageable. However, unless we provide a certain amount of unpredictability, children can become so firmly attached to one way of doing things that they not only resist change, but rebel against it. “What do you mean we are not having pancakes? You promised!”. Maybe pancakes aren’t the big deal in your house, but we can all come up with examples where a child insisted that something had to happen a certain way, at a certain time, and then made us feel the consequences with their ensuing obnoxious behaviour.
As parents, of course, it is our noble and natural instinct to help our children be comfortable, so much so that we actually knock ourselves out trying to make things go exactly as they want and expect! What many years of learning and reflection have taught me (and much wailing and gnashing of teeth-theirs and mine), is that children need discomfort. Vast numbers of curve balls will indeed come their way and flexibility will help them adapt to new, novel and shifting expectations. Rescuing our children from their discomfort will simply entrench their inflexibility. Give them more practice instead.
Parenting must surely be the ultimate test of flexibility. Family life is rarely how we envisioned it and our children present us with a fast flow of opportunities to practice flexibility. Parenting educator Barbara Coloroso talks about the value of flexibility in our parenting. She uses the metaphor of the human spine to characterise “authoritative” parenting. Like the backbone, “authoritative” parenting is strong, solid and essential. Nevertheless, it is also capable of movement, and being flexible. It knows when to flex and when to stand tall. Does it always get it right? Not necessarily, but it is willing to re-adjust upon parental reflection-(as opposed to children badgering): “I have been thinking about what I said to you yesterday, and I have changed my mind, we are going to make a new plan”.
When difficulties arise, children are highly skilled at noticing what other people need to do differently. We can help them develop flexibility by encouraging reflection, and helping them identify what they can do differently themselves. Being flexible requires a willingness for inward scrutiny, as well as a measure of curiosity and openness. It means looking at ourselves as always in motion and in a state of becoming, rather than simply being. It means that instead of seeing difficulties as obstacles, we see them opportunities for growth and greater insight.
As in all other things, children take their cues from us as parents. We are under a lot of pressure to be good role models! When children hear us railing against change, they are quick to absorb the vibe.
When we are unable to respond positively to new circumstances, they are busy taking notes. Conversely, when they witness us taking new information in stride and adjusting accordingly, we are fostering their capacity to adapt to change in a healthy way.
Ask your children what flexibility would look like if:
Mum and Dad were supposed to be coming home from a trip and now they are going to be a day late?
You notice that some of your friends don’t want to play?
Your new friend has different rules for the game you like to play?
You just found out your parents are going out and you have a babysitter tonight?
Your teacher tells you that you are playing too roughly on the playground?
Your mum gave you beans on your plate and she should know you hate them?
And some thoughts on flexibility for pondering at the dinner table:
“A person should endeavour to be as pliant as a reed, yet hard as cedar wood”. The Talmud
“There can be no life without change, and to be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar is to be afraid of life”. Theodore Rossevelt
“I want to caution you against the belief that balance has to be a routine that looks the same week in and week out”. Kevin Thoman
“I learned when hit by loss to ask the right question: ‘What next’ instead of ‘Why me?’” Julia Cameron
“I think I’d better think it out again!” Fagin, in Oliver!
Tessa Lloyd, Junior School Counsellor