As I sat filling out the teacher information sheet for the specialist, I struggled for precise words to describe what the challenge was. His parents were looking for help, and I was suppose to offer a teacher’s perspective, but how could I put it all on two tiny lines? And then the word I was looking for popped into my mind. He struggled with flexibility. His mind was often rigid, and when experience didn’t match up with expectation, he melted down and could not be moved from his position.
I’m sure there are many ways this strong personality will help him in his future. While this rigidity may be a challenge at times, it also helps when pursuing goals and overcoming obstacles. I’ve seen some of the same qualities in one of my own boys. I’ve even seen it in myself.
But my rigid thinking threatened my life.
In my late teens I struggled with what is now referred to as orthorexia. I didn’t experience what people typically think of as an eating disorder, but my rigid thinking about food and health actually made me unhealthy. Forty pounds below my recommended weight to height ratio, amenorrheic for months, I finally listened to a doctor who explained I would never — in that condition — be able to have children. And so I learned to be more flexible.
Maybe that’s why I have a different perspective when I hear about the importance of parents and teachers being consistent with children. Children do need consistency, but they also need models of flexibility and room to take risks and make their own choices.
That’s why I don’t talk about “good food” and “bad food” in our foods lessons during preschool, but about “healthy foods” and “sometimes foods” — foods that are OK to have once in a while, but not as a regular mainstay. And it’s why we have healthy meals in our home. Except for when we don’t. A steady diet of fast food may kill you, but a once in a blue moon swing through the drive through won’t.
It’s why my kids know that they must always, always wear a seat belt. Except for the tenth of a mile stretch of dirt road between my parents’ house and my sister’s house. That’s where they get to sit on my lap and “drive” the car. (Gever Tulley told me to.)
It’s why I so thoroughly appreciated my major professor explaining that she would never, ever dream of stifling her daughter’s creativity by giving her a coloring book….until she saw how much she enjoyed them. (I love what my friend, Cathy James, has to say on that same topic.)
It’s the reason I rejoiced when I heard Ellen Galinsky clarify that while we should give specific praise, not labels, she would agree that kids should still hear, “Wow, you’re really smart”, every once in a while.
It’s why we have a firm 8pm bedtime at our house, yet we stay out late to see the lunar eclipse, pull sleeping kids from tents to see the meteor shower, or stay up a bit to enjoy our out of town company. (OK, maybe we’re straying a bit past “sometimes” on this category. “Sometimes” we get the kids to bed on time.)
As adults we have a tendency to argue many topics in the extremes. You either “always, always” or you “never, ever”. But I’ve found that many of the happiest, healthiest people work with “mostly” and “sometimes”. They know how to give a little. To be flexible and bend rather than to be rigid and snap.
Certainly there are a few “always” and “nevers” in life, but the ones that really matter are few and far between. And even from the pool of those that are “always” and “never” in principle, there are actually very few that are irreparable once we recognize our mistake.
Kids need us to be consistent. But I believe that consistency isn’t meant to be rigidity. It’s meant to give us a predictable base from which to vary.
Because sometimes, they actually need us to be flexible.