How to bulletproof your kids for life V


What girlfriends say

“It’s not you, it’s him!”

“You so deserved it more than her, it’s just the wrong time for you…”

“It’s because you’re too smart for him!”

“There’s no way that’s a size (insert appropriate size here) …!”

Officially, what they’re doing is trying to help a girlfriend deal with a situation by counteracting her thinking about why something happened. In our vernacular, they’re looking to help her generate alternative hypotheses for her situation, from which she’d choose one or two to attribute the cause to.

Unofficially of course, they’re lying to spare her feelings by blaming something, or someone, else. In other words, they are attributing the cause of the situation to external things. But here’s the trick. Maybe, they’re right… aaaaand maybe they’re not. What next? First, get a coffee, this will take you a bit of effort.

Here’s where we’ve got to so far

  1. In Bulletproof kids I, we looked at attributions, and linked it to resilience
  2. In Bulletproof kids II we looked at three sets of attributions with examples
  3. In Bulletproof kids III, we covered feedback and being involved in attributions
  4. In Bulletproof kids IV we played “I wonder” to introduce kids to the skills of  generating different attributions for different situations.

Here’s where we’re going

We want to make the conversations about attributions and alternatives an open one between us and our kids, so that kids learn how to argue from different perspectives. They need to be able to generate options, evaluate them, and choose critically. Later, they’ll be able to do this by themselves, for themselves, without your help. This is the endgame we’re after, so that we help build resilience.

A playbook of choices

So let’s assume that you and your kids have been busy practising generating alternative hypotheses for situations you’ve seen or invented. Good for you. Now we need to choose the right one, which means going through them all to evaluate them against what you know about your players and the situation. I want you to understand the importance of this bit. It’s here that the critical discussions happen. Why this and why not that?

Normally, these conversations happen inside our own skulls, and others aren’t party to the flow of the conversation. What that means is that others (parents, friends, teachers) are usually left to offer alternatives AFTER someone else has already made their attributions. We want to get in before this. “I wonder…” helps because it gets kids to have ideas first, and make decisions second. Naturally, the same applies to us as adults too.

Choosing the right play

Typically, as with any sort of brainstorm, we get a list of choices, and we discard some immediately because they’re obviously wrong, completely outrageous or hopelessly misguided. But then there are the rest. Deciding which is the best can be difficult. For us, there are a few things to be mindful of. Remember, how we go about this is crucial.

One. Remember that the brain will take the most familiar route, so be conscious that the first choice you land on is usually the one that’s most familiar to your brain. This doesn’t mean it’s accurate, only that it’s familiar.

Implication: Beware of habits, and understand that this takes effort to learn

Two. We usually assume life is often so simple that one cause has one effect. Here’s the benefit of generating alternatives, in that we overcome the inclination to find simple cause-effect answers. We get multiple causes, and understand that there can be multiple outcomes for each cause too.

Implication: Be thorough in generating alternatives

Three. We’re generally woefully biased in a bunch of ways, both because that’s how people operate, and also because we’re the product of our environment at home and school, neighbourhood, clubs etc, all of which impact on how we make attributions.

Implication: Recognise that we overestimate our ability, intelligence, understanding, aptitude, capacity, capability (and pretty much everything), and that we borrow the attributions of others

Four. We’re not very good at making decisions. Sad, but true.

Implication: Use a process and structure, rather than a stabbing in the dark or doing what you’ve always done, see Number 1.

Ok. Here’s how. First, get another coffee.

From your list, get rid of the obvious. With what’s left, the typical tendency is to rank them in order of preference or likelihood. In truth, we can’t know all of the causes, or the likelihood of all the causes, so we are estimating a little. Maybe the math test really was too hard, and I didn’t study enough. This gets hard if we just list stuff, so here’s a better way.

Use an easy number such as 10 or 100, and then use this as the number of votes you can allocate to each option.  Make sure that the total of the votes you allocate doesn’t exceed your value. If I’m down to three choices, I might end up with a 2, 3 and 5 (2+3+5=10).

If it’s more complicated, I might use 100 votes, and be more specific with my numbers. What happens is we’re forced to evaluate our options against each other and weigh them up. Is this really twice as likely as that? Is there really only one contributing factor that gets all the votes? Why is this lower than that?

What I get is a ranking, but also contributing factors relative to each other. This is a really useful way of avoiding the one cause, one effect mindset. “I failed because I’m stupid” is hard to maintain when it’s one choice among others and I have to cast votes.  It gives me a structure and process, and overcomes the most familiar path problem because we’re forced to think differently, even though it’s tough to start with.

Lastly, even if I overestimate my understanding or intelligence (or whatever), I’m now doing so across options, and having to compare them all. Now, my overestimations are relative to all my other overestimations, which has the effect of nullifying them. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good.

So here’s the take home bit

Now we’ve got something to work with. Little kids can’t do this because they don’t have the mental grunt to grasp the concepts. However, by age 9 or 10, kids should be able to handle reasonably complex conversations about why this and not that and, with your help, make decisions based on relative scores.

For little kids, help them build the skills. For bigger kids, make sure you have the conversation with them to generate options, and then about allocating votes. This gives you an insight into how they think about cause, where their attributional tendencies are, and the opportunity to teach them how to step outside a situation, view it from different angles, allocate relative weight to options, and choose accordingly. Phew!

We now need to know what to do to handle the decisions.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Hypothesis generation, Attributions, Evaluating hypotheses

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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