I was with my nieces on the weekend and we were talking about “The Plan”. We are off on holidays soon and were brainstorming ideas about what to do and how to get around. I was questioning one of the plans because of time and location and my niece said to me:
“If Plan A doesn’t work, Auntie Kate, there are still twenty five letters left in the alphabet”.
I smiled from the bottom of my soul when I heard this! I thought not only is it very cute, it shows that the girls are adaptable and flexible and willing to go with the flow. These are such important “soft” skills for kids to learn.
All of these traits I would put under the one umbrella of “behavioural flexibility”. Behavioural flexibility is one of the most important skills we can teach our children. If they understand it and can demonstrate it, then they are on the road to a successful adulthood.
Behavioural flexibility is the skill of being able to change our behaviour to meet the person or situation in front of us. The opposite of that is a person expecting the world to always come to them. If it doesn’t come to them they tend to show their unhappiness is a variety of ways – everything from not speaking and sulking, right through to a complete emotional hijacking or tantrum.
One of my favourite sayings in the world is: “The person with the most behavioural flexibility controls the room”. That means that whoever is the most adaptable and can engage with each person (even though each person is different) becomes the most powerful. By powerful, I mean influential.
The same can be said for situations: the person who is able to adapt quickly and graciously and remain in a resourceful state is going to be the person who gets promoted and moves up the chain of command. They have demonstrated that they can handle uncertainty and are willing to come up with Plan B through to Plan Z if need be. In a non-working environment they are the person who is able to move through life with minimal stress and far more pleasure. They roll with the punches!
Behavioural flexibility is really about uncertainty. It’s about how much uncertainty you can handle whilst still remaining in control. For some people, if Plan A doesn’t work the wheels fall off and the whole thing becomes pointless – a total disaster! For others, if Plan A doesn’t work they see it as a chance to get creative and think outside the square. The major distinction here is that one person hates uncertainty and fights it, whereas the other person sees it as an opportunity for growth and development.
One of the great disservices we are doing our children at the moment is not allowing them to experience high levels of uncertainty. We are therefore limiting the development of their behavioural flexibility. Everyone getting a ribbon at the sports carnival, or every layer of “pass the parcel” having a gift in it is actually way more damaging than we realise (in my opinion). These types of situations are the practice ground for real life disappointment and uncertainty, and when we take away their chance to practice in a safe and secure environment we are setting them up for a big fall.
I work with young adults (18, 19 and 20 year olds) and it astounds me that when Plan A doesn’t work they immediately look to someone else for guidance or become so overwhelmed that they’re actually a bit useless. They have not yet developed the ability to think outside the square and their behavioural flexibility is SO limited. This is not because they can’t do it but because their opportunities to practice these soft skills during their childhood and adolescence were so limited. Everything was taken care of and they have not experienced or had to self-manage some of those emotional states that feel yuk.
This is not their fault. We need to be looking to ourselves as adults and question how we can develop more behavioural flexibility – not only within us but in our children too.
Behavioural flexibility really is one of life’s greatest skills to acquire.