A number of years ago, I had the privilege to attend a leadership training class designed for new supervisors. While we did a number of exercises and activities designed to increase our skills in dealing with a wide variety of potential conflicts, the most powerful part of the class for me was the discovery and understanding of my preferences and behaviors as a leader. The ability, or desire, to be introspective and attempt to gain an objective view of your behavior with an intent to improve is an essential skill for any leader. Doing so helps us understand the impact of our actions on others, creating a level of connectivity that can eventually lead to understanding and trust. While this is important for military, corporate, or civic leaders, it is absolutely critical for parents.
One of the exercises we did was particularly compelling. It required us to write a list of ten things that we "had to" do; we actually had to use the words "have to." I do not recall exactly what was on my original list, but it included a healthy mix of things I wanted to do, and things I did not want to do. As an example, I wrote "I have to try harder to make my marriage work", which I really did not want to do, and "I have to start exercising more", which was actually a goal that I was excited about.
Once our lists were completed, the instructor asked us to do something simple; replace the words "have to" with the words "choose to."
It was eye-opening.
Suddenly, instead of thinking about how I "had" to improve my marriage, I began thinking about whether or not I would choose to do so. Instead of thinking about exercise as a chore, I began to view it as a choice. In fact, I began to see that every one of my ten items, including things that I thought were out of my control, were now within my power to change. They had always been within my power to change, of course, but for many of us that power is difficult to trust, difficult to believe in, and difficult - if not impossible - to wield.
Over the intervening years, I have felt trapped by circumstances many, many times; in relationships, financial issues, parenting and partnering concerns, career goals, interests, etc. My experience tells me that most of us feel trapped at one point or another, as we wrestle with our upbringings, schemas, and circumstances in our attempt to reconcile what we desire with what we feel we are able to accomplish. If unresolved, over time this can lead us to feel victimized by circumstance; we resign ourselves to embody statements like "there's nothing I can do", or "it is what it is" and try to struggle along with the disappointment of being unfulfilled.
When I was struggling along through life in my early 20s blaming the whole world for my misfortune, my aunt gave me a nice slap one day by telling me that I was using my perception of my upbringing as a crutch, an excuse that prevented me from taking responsibility for changing what could be changed. That stung, and it took me many years to understand her point. Certainly, there are certain situations in which there really is nothing you can do, and where "it is what it is." And there are, without a doubt, many horrific experiences in life that may be impossible for most people to overcome. In such situations, there may truly be few, if any, real choices.
But when our default response to something challenging or negative is that we "have to" accept it, and that we can never change it, we may well be selling ourselves short and setting ourselves up to allow the circumstances in our lives to control our beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes. We may be defining our lives, and our own roles within our lives, in terms of "have to" instead of "choose to." In such an environment, it is easy to blame others and to deflect criticism and responsibility. I guess that's okay for some people.
But for parents, I'm not sure it's good enough.
Our children and partners demand more, yet many of us spend at least part of our days lost in a world of "must"s and "need"s that aren't necessarily real. We focus on these things without searching for a clear path to the choices we have and what is actually possible. I wonder what prevents us from making these choices each day. Is it our upbringings, in which some of these choices were not valued? Is it the input of other parents and friends? Is it our concern or preoccupation with the overwhelming administrivia of our lives? Is it selfishness? All of these, alone or in combination with other factors, may inhibit our ability to see the power we have in our lives. But it could actually be much more simple; it could be because we have not ever taken the time to consider the types of choices we really have, and to commit to making them with a positive view in mind.
If we are able to see that we do have choices in our lives, and become aware of what those choices are, we can then begin to make incredible choices that allow our relationships - and therefore our own lives - to blossom. We have thousands of possible choices every day, in each interaction and thought we have regarding our children, our partners and ourselves.
We can choose yes over no; we can choose connection over distance; we can choose joy over fear; we can choose peacefulness over anger; we can choose discussion over mandate; we can choose alternatives over direction; we can choose freedom over rules; we can choose to be thoughtful instead of arbitrary; we can choose curiosity over judgment; we can choose play over work; we can choose giving over receiving; we can choose partnership over filial piety; we can choose laughter over grumpiness; we can choose letting go over control; we can choose understanding over fear; we can choose action over apathy, and we can choose love over hate.
When we are able to see the choices we have and then begin to make the ones that build relationships and confidence, we can have a significantly positive impact on our families and on the people around us. The reactions and responses of our children and partners are like mirrors in which we are confronted with the power, both positive and negative, of the choices we have made. The choices we make are important for the emotional health of our families, for certain; but the very fact that we are able to model our lives as lives of choice sets an example of self-determinism and positivity that our children are likely to both enjoy and adopt.