Today it’s raining outside and when I suggested cancelling our trip to the park, my four-year-old was full of alternative suggestions. “All the children could have umbrellas, then we won’t get wet!” When I remind her that the equipment will be wet and slippery, she comes up with another idea. “We could go to the indoor playground in that town we visited!” (That town is two hours away.)
My daughter’s face lights up as she shares suggestions to solve a problem. She is in the age group where the majority of minds score at genius level in lateral thinking. According to a longitudinal study from NASA, this ability will decrease as she gets older, unless she is in the two percent of the population that maintain this as an adult.
Most children under the age of five feel safe enough to throw ideas around, to problem-solve, regardless of how impossible their ideas may be or what obstacles might be in the way of fulfilling them. And this is an important life skill worth maintaining. Having more possible solutions to a problem means we have more options when we ultimately take action to address a situation. And having more options means having more freedom, both in our personal and professional lives. The three-step communication approach outlined below will help keep a child’s mind open to innovating.
Step one – clarify understanding
Clarify that you understand what your child is suggesting. Studies have found that only a third of what a speaker says is received in the way they intended it, so taking time to clarify that you understand what someone is saying can save a lot of time and frustration. A useful starting response to an idea is “can you tell me more about that”, to see what ideas they have already imagined, rather than assuming you know, and then paraphrasing their idea so far.
Step two – respond with positives
Say what you like about the idea. This can be tricky if your brain is screaming “no, that’s not going to work”. Ideally if you can find 3 positive things to say about the idea (and the third is always the hardest), it will open up insights you hadn't thought of before and change your perception, it keeps the atmosphere positive and open, and the idea has a chance to be played with. Our default way of responding to a deduction or an idea is often to first point out any facts that are incorrect or any problems with the idea. Regardless of how nice the tone is, it causes the other to feel shut down (whether they are consciously aware or not). It also causes a cycle in which the person who feels shut down will then, in turn, do the same back not long after (or if it is a child, they might be stroppy about something unrelated). To create a safe, trusting environment conducive to development and positive relationships, it is vital not to shut down ideas and the connections your child makes.
When a child comes out with a deduction, or answers a question incorrectly, it is important to be aware that your response (which is often a correction) can have a deflating effect that closes the mind. We need to explore HOW they made that connection. The aim is to foster the ability to make connections, rather than switch it off. In addition, encouraging a child to articulate how they make connections can lead to accelerated, reflexive learning. My grandfather, who worked as a communication facilitator for nearly 50 years, used this example:
A young child points to a cow and says "horse". Rather than saying "No, not a horse" (which shut-downs the brain and teaches a child not to guess or play with ideas), we look for the connections that the child made. "Yeah, it is a farm animal with four legs and fur and a similar size to a horse. This one has an udder for milking and so we call this one a cow”.
Step three – develop the idea together
Express your reservations as a “how to” make the idea work. The “how” prevents us saying “yes, BUT” (and then saying why it won’t work and therefore shutting the idea down). A “how” shows you are open to developing and playing with the idea together. For example, when responding to the idea of going to the indoor playground, rather than saying “yes BUT it’s a four-hour round trip”, we would acknowledge the great aspects of that idea and then say “HOW could we play in an indoor playground closer to us because that one is very far away?”. This opens up the conversation so you can continue developing the idea together. Alternatively, rather than “that won’t work because … ”, we say “what we need to do to make that work is … ”. The person who has shared an idea is going to be open to your suggestions if you are showing ways that will make it work, rather than giving reasons it won’t work (most will tune out if you do the former and you will find they will probably shut down something you are saying in return).
Keeping it real
With practice, the time will come when more often than not we will respond to ideas with “yes, tell me more”. And if now is not a good time for exploring ideas, we will be conscious enough to stop and say to our children, partners or peers: “I’m really interested in hearing about this and want to give it my full attention. Can we find a time later today as I’m feeling distracted right now?”. But we won’t always be in the right mindset and conditions to get our responses spot on.
Sometimes, we might not have the time or patience to explore crazy ideas about how we can fly to our appointment instead of getting in the car. My response yesterday – “no, not right now, please just get in the car!” – wasn’t on target. And that’s okay, too. We are human. But, it is important to be aware of the unconscious effects our words have on development, to be conscious of the tools, to use them as much as we can and be aware of the cycles that are created. It is a magic world of connection that opens for us when we explore ideas together and they lead us to places we would never think of. Today, instead of going to the park in the rain, we built one inside and drew up plans for a new type of zip-line. It began as something for a park and as we pondered how far it would stretch, it evolved to be a peddle-powered mode of transport for long distances. Could this be the way that she could one day fly to her appointments?
This is one of the many tools that are taught in Alithia communication workshops for parents and educators (free in person, with online resources coming soon). These tools will be used at the Alithia Learning Space, which is a pilot for the first Young Innovators Hub located on the Mid-North Coast of Australia (catering for children aged 5 - 12 years). Join the Alithia newsletter (or follow us on Facebook) for more information: alithialearning.org.au > Get Involved
From the Blog
Alithia Learning runs a range of child-led programs designed for 5 to 12 year-olds. The defining characteristics of our programs are positive communication and freedom to learn.
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