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Was That Your Best Choice?

What would you never say to your five-year-old? It’s hard to say exactly what goes on your list but I suspect that things on your never say list all have a negative or critical tone or message tucked in there. I doubt that any of us would tell our five-year-old that he or she is stupid, ugly, lazy, in the way, too much bother, or anything else implying that the child is not valued or not okay. At least I hope none of us would relate to or respond to a child in ways like that.

Even so, there is definitely another side to that coin. Our five-year-old certainly needs feedback, and sometimes, that feed back needs to be negative or critical. Children need to learn how to do things and how to behave. They also need to learn how not to do things and how not to behave. They require guidance, coaching and the opportunity to take advantage of our experience, awareness and judgment. They also have to occasionally deal with a firm and unequivocal “No!” The issue isn’t whether they should receive our guidance and feedback – they should. Rather the issue is how and when that guidance and feedback should be forthcoming.

You may be thinking that I’m about to offer some advice about how you should or should not go about providing guidance and feedback to children. Not this time. Instead, I want to share with you my father’s first principle for offering guidance and feedback to me growing up. As much as I have read about and studied child development and parenting over the years, I have never come across any childhood scholar or parenting expert who even mentioned Dad’s first principle, little lone recommending it. Nonetheless, I think you may find it worth your consideration.

Let’s call Dad’s first principle the “He’ll figure it out principle.” When I did something that Dad thought I shouldn’t have done – which I occasionally did — or something that did not work out very well or just wasn’t working for me, he asked one of two questions. Question one was, “Do you think that was your best choice?” or question two, “How do you think that is working out for you?” Here is the key. He actually listened to my answer. Usually, I just acknowledged that it wasn’t my best choice or that it hadn’t worked out very well.

Sometimes I would tell him that it seemed like a good idea at the time. He would only chuckle and comment that maybe the next time, it wouldn’t seem like such a good idea.

Dad also had what we might think of as the first corollary to his first principle. Most of the time, he didn’t say or do anything when my decisions and choices had negative outcomes or didn’t work out. He usually just gave me credit for figuring out for myself that I had made a bad decision or poor choice. He might ask if I wanted to talk about it but usually not. Unless the issue came up again, that was the end of it.

Although I don’t think I saw it at the time, I eventually came to see that Dad had a backup strategy or way of being sure that I did get the guidance and advice that would serve me well over time. Some time removed from the incident that included my bad choice or poor judgment, Dad would share an anecdote or in some other way share his thoughts or experience related to the incident or situation that I had already resolved or worked out. He never pointed out the connection but it was there for me to notice or think about, should I choose to do so and I usually did. The best part was that I always knew that we could talk about the issue or situation if I wanted to talk.

Dad’s first principle worked out pretty well for me growing up. The key point that I want to share with you is that it has continued to work out for me when working with people as a coworker, supervisor, manager and administrator. Sure, there were times when I had to take control and insist that people do some things in a specific way and never do other things. There were also times when those expectations had to be enforced, especially if people would not or could not conform to expectations. But for most people most of the time, Dad’s two questions were enough:

• “Do you think that was your best choice?”

• “How do you think that is working out for you?”

My only goal here is to encourage you to consider always starting with one of Dad’s two questions whenever you think someone has made a bad choice or poor decision. That’s enough to be sure they know that you noticed and are there to consult if they want your advice or guidance. Even better may be to do nothing, just assuming that they will figure it out for themselves and not repeat their miscue. An interesting point worth knowing is that the worse the bad choice or bad decision, the more likely most people are to never repeat that choice or decision. They just figure it out for themselves.

Now you know so there you go.