I have two very literal, black and white thinking kids in my house. We’ve struggled over the years to teach them flexibility, and exceptions to the rule. Not many parents complain that their kids are adamant rule followers. However, kids who thrive on rules and structure can be prone to meltdowns when plans change at the last minute. Sometimes circumstances beyond our control force us to adapt. (In my family, these are also my HSP children–coincidence? Probably not).
Clearly, there are rules in life that must be followed 100% of the time. Examples include: don’t play with fire, look both ways before crossing the street, always wear your seat belt. However, we have introduced the 80/20 rule in our house to help our kids understand that in a lot of life situations, you have to be flexible.
I think the easiest way to introduce the 80/20 rule to kids is through food. We think food’s pretty important at our house, and we try to talk a lot about where it comes from. We also discuss what choices we make about food, and why we decide to eat or not eat certain things. Kids generally understand that by making healthy food choices 80% of the time, they are able to enjoy treats the other 20%.
Once they have the concept down, we start incorporating it into other areas of our life. For example, the way I’ve structured our learning over the summer: they have 30 minutes of outdoor play, 30 minutes of learning time, and chores must be completed before they earn their 30 minutes of video game time.
If their chores take 30 minutes per day, that means they have one hour of ‘work’ out of twenty four. (And sometimes 30 minutes of that work is coloring or building with legos, so don’t feel too sorry for them). We apply 80/20 loosely by the amount of work vs play time in their days. It’s applied again in that, a lot of days we will take off and go to the lake to fish or swim all day, and skip our learning time.
However, sometimes our kids struggle with bending the rules, even in the name of fun. This can be frustrating for a parent when you announce, “Everyone grab their swim trunks and towels, we’re going swimming today!”, and the response is less than enthusiastic. It’s not that they would rather work on multiplication tables than go swimming, trust me. Children who are super literal just have trouble deviating from the previously stated course of action.
As a parent, how can you help your literal-thinking child?
–If surprises are not a positive thing for your child, avoid them. Break news gently. Just because you love surprises, doesn’t mean your child does. My oldest struggles with any type of change of plan, even a really fun change. Once we figured out that he didn’t like being surprised, we tell him about plans matter of factly, in as much time before the event as possible (but not too much before hand–keep on reading).
–Explain the change of course in age appropriate terms. “I know that we usually do chores as soon as you get off the bus. However, today Grandma and Grandpa are taking you out for ice cream as a special treat. You can do you chores when you get home, or we’ll do an extra good job with our chores tomorrow. It’s okay to skip chores once in awhile to spend time with our family. That’s different than just forgetting about chores or not managing our time well.”
–Know what time table works best for your child. If I have to call the school and change our pickup routine, I request that the teacher not tell my child until the end of the day. I know it may be a distraction or worry for him to wonder about the change of plans all day long.
–Give your child a minute to compose themselves. You won’t always have control over the time table. In instantaneous changes, give your child a few minutes to process the change and gain command over their emotions. Don’t expect perfect behavior, but modeling positive behavior in the wake of disappointment or change will help them learn appropriate responses. (Clearly, modeling positive behavior goes much farther with school aged children than with toddlers.)
–Voice your emotions to them. Tell you child that you are disappointed/mad/sad/frustrated as well, but that the situation is out of your control, and you both must make the best of it. Your child may feel alone in their emotions, so letting them know how you are feeling helps them feel secure.
We don’t want to be legalistic about rules in our house. Rules keep us on track the majority of the time. Living a joyless life while following rules 100% of the time is not the goal. This is an easier concept for an adult to understand than a child, and it’s important to remember that all children are different. If you have a literal child that struggles with change, using these concepts may relieve stress for both of you.