Grace and Flexibility

Walking the dog through our beautiful little neighborhood cemetery is one of my favorite daily rituals. Following the paths as they meander up and down gentle rolling hills fills me with peace. I am always comforted by the cemetery’s thoughtful design and the multitude of trees that line its walkways.

Today as I strolled past a big maple tree sprouting spring buds, I recalled a day this past winter when an ice storm had bent the tree’s branches all the way to the slippery path below. I was in awe of this tall tree’s ability to be so flexible. Not one branch was broken. As my dog and I entered the quiet sanctuary formed by its branches, I was wowed by this awesome display of grace and flexibility and remembered the first time I encountered it in a human relationship. For that I thank Dr. Ross Greene, author The Explosive Child.

Drs. Ross Greene and Stuart Ablon run The Center for Collaborative Problem Solving. The Center provides clinical services, training and consultation to assist parents, educators, mental health and medical professionals in understanding the collaborative problem solving approach. The Center has developed a more humane way of looking at children who experience rigid thinking and chronic frustration. The Center teaches us that the challenges the children face are best understood as by-products of lagging cognitive skills and demonstrates that they are best addressed by teaching children the skills they lack. This is radical thinking.

The collaborative problem solving approach asks adults that might be living and working with children who experience rigid thinking, to embrace grace and flexibility in a whole new way. CPS allows adults to transition to a place of partnership with a child in order to move beyond rigid adult thinking that can often set kids up for frustration and failure. Teaching the kinds of cognitive skills that children who experience chronic frustration require involves three basic steps:

1. Empathy/Reassurance: to identify and understand the child’s concern about a given issue and to reassure her or him that imposition of adult will is not how the problem will be resolved.
2. Define the Problem: to identify the adults’ concerns about the same issue.
3. The Invitation: to invite the child to brainstorm solutions together with the adult, with the ultimate goal of agreeing on a plan of action that is both realistic and mutually satisfactory – creating a win/win situation.

These three steps are not that complicated. Last night I observed a parent and child engage in collaborative problem solving at my daughter’s school. A parent was picking up his child who appeared agitated. He jumped up on his dad and hollered, “ I’m starving! Can we go for pizza? I’m starving! I want to go to Bertucci’s right now!” The parent wanted to go home and change his clothes. He said quietly, “ You want pizza now. You are starving.” The boy nodded his head. The dad said, “You want pizza now. I would like to go home and change my clothes and then go have pizza. What do you think we should do?”

This simple statement and follow up question demonstrated to the boy that his dad was not interested in controlling the situation. It showed that he was listening and willing to be flexible. In fact, he was modeling flexible thinking skills. He had an idea in his head but wanted to hear his son’s thoughts on the subject. He was like the tree in the cemetery – full of grace and flexibility.

The boy who had been ready for a struggle, looked his dad in the eye and said, “Dad, I haven’t had anything to eat except a bag of pretzels and juice since lunch. How about if we eat pizza first this time and next time you can go home and change first next time?” The dad responded with, “You are really hungry. I have a bag of popcorn in the car. Can you eat that now so you are not so terribly hungry? Then I can quickly drive home and change.” The boy said, “Mom doesn’t like me to eat filler foods. I think I need dinner.” The dad ruffled the kid’s hair, laughed, and said, “OK. That’s a good point. Let’s go eat first. I can do that!” Instead of disintegrating into a polarizing public spectacle, this situation spiraled up. The boy and his dad went out the door laughing. It was a win-win.

Just think: in addition to developing skills that are crucial to learning how to be flexible and tolerate frustration, imagine the trust that this dad was building with his son. CPS is such a powerful tool. I honor what Drs. Greene and Ablon are offering us. It’s a humane and enlightened approach – one that has the potential to help children and adults do well in all areas of their life.

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