How to bulletproof your kids for life IV


What players say

“Where are your glasses, ref ”

“Whose side are you on, ref?”

“He’s been doing it all game ref!”

and the immortal


all of which are, of course, external attributions for why we are losing, lost the point, lost the game, got penalised, or generally should have stayed at home that day and away from sharp objects. But they do show an impressive ability to find alternate causes for an event.

The knack

In Bulletproof III, we talked briefly about the critical skill of developing alternatives, and how there is a knack to getting our kids to learn it. The purpose of this post is to talk about a simple way of helping our kids, and us, develop the skill. While it is only the first step in our master plan, and we need to get to the other steps, this is a critical skill to get under way early.

So for now, we want to work on developing alternatives, and it doesn’t matter whether the alternatives are good, fitting or plainly impossible. The point is that we get used to creating them.

The game of “I wonder…”

Ok. Start your kids young, as young as possible, say around 5 years old. This game is good for home with children, alone or with siblings. If you’re a teacher, it also works with groups at school. It’s a game we’ve used called “I wonder”. This works for kids up to about age 10 or so, but obviously the complexity increases as children get older and more sophisticated. If you’ve got kids in this age range, get into it. If your kids are older, hang about, we’ll get to older kids next time.

I wonder” is great because it plugs into imagination, and kids, when they’re trying to interpret a situation, are a little less fettered than adults, making them a truckload of fun to work with, and making this a game they take to easily.

It’s also pretty irrelevant to them that they’re learning a skill, as long as it’s fun, so for them, it’s just a game. That’s fine – if they’re having fun, you’re sorted. Remember, our intention here is to get them practising skills that will later become useful. As they get older, we’ll see the benefits.

How to play

I wonder” is simple.

Introduce a conversation with “I wonder why/how/what…”, and insert any situation you want. The object then is to create as many alternatives as you can in a short time. Mix it up with real, imagined, and nonsensical ideas to keep interest and engagement high – it’s important that they get practise.

By the way, kids quickly learn what to do, and will also learn to start the game themselves when they get a chance with you. In advance, sorry for the children who will persistently ask to play “I wonder” when you get in the car! It does work well in the car, and also walking the dog, sitting in bed at night, or whenever you have a few minutes.

It works kind of like a guided brainstorm, so don’t worry if the alternatives are good, wrong, impossible or prosaic. The point is to generate alternatives and teach children to look at a question from multiple angles.

Here’s an example

There are opportunities everywhere. Here are 7 that I saw on a 10 minute drive with my six year old.

  1. “I wonder why she’s wearing a hat?”
  2. “I wonder why that lady is carrying a bag?
  3. “I wonder what makes telephone poles stick up straight?”
  4. “I wonder what his dogs are called?”
  5. “I wonder why the shopkeeper was so grumpy”
  6. “I wonder why some dogs have floppy ears”
  7. “I wonder where her mother was?”

For each item, the goal is to share the responsibility for generating options, bouncing back and forth. Naturally, previous answers become a springboard for new ideas. For the first one, the hat, we got these quickly:

  • She’s cold
  • It was a birthday present
  • It matches her top
  • Her kids wanted her to
  • She’s meeting a friend who wears hats
  • She has a bad haircut
  • She has no hair
  • She only has one really long hair (see the brain starting to follow a thread already? Time for a change.)
  • She didn’t have a plastic bag
  • Her plastic bag had a hole in it and the really long hair would stick out

And so on.

Simple, huh?

As we continued, the answers got more and more outrageous until aliens entered the scene and we stopped. I’m not saying the external attribution that purple and pink hat-selling aliens controlling her brain isn’t the right attribution to make here, it was just less likely than the others…

But you can see how it teaches kids to imagine alternate possibilities. I use real situations like this one, or I just make up simple scenarios. For them all, our goal is to get a number of alternatives in a short time. Children learn that there are many possible answers to situations, are less likely to take the first conclusion they draw, because they are willing to consider alternatives BEFORE they decide. This is the crucial stuff.

When, ultimately, they come to situations where they are the central player, they are already used to generating alternate hypotheses for why things have happened.

Some benefits

As you already know, the more they practise this, the more the brain gets familiar with looking for alternatives. We’re targeting resilience, but there are obvious benefits for problem solving, creativity and lateral thinking, both for you and your family.

By you playing with them, they gain a fresh perspective and different ideas, while you get the chance to shape what they do, suggest options, encourage the right thinking and so on, just like a coach. This becomes super-important when we talk about what to do with what you get. Evaluating the hypotheses is what you do with them but, as we said, more on that later.

So here’s the take home bit

Our goal is to train our kids and their brains to be able to develop alternative options. For any given situation, we want them to be able to generate a range of ideas for why this thing might have happened.

By wrapping this skill into the “I wonder” game, we can start them early and play it with them, developing a skill they’ll use later. By you playing, you get to monitor how they do, and also to practice it yourself.

So, go practice, and tell me how it goes.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Hypothesis generation

Let me know how you go.

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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