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Looking for the win-win

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

My partner is away for a few days, so life is just that little bit more orderly. When there's another adult here it all feels so spacious. One child wants to go out? No problem, there's still another parent around for the others. Since we're both pretty much in charge of the hours we work when we're at home, there's a lot of flexibility. When it's just me, there are inevitably some more complicated moments, where meeting everyone's needs is challenging.

It was in this context today that I was reminded of a thoughtful blogpost I read a couple of months ago. The writer was talking about how to look for win-win solutions in situations that initially seem doomed to make one party unhappy. So, whereby conventional parenting wisdom might be to insist on children doing things they don't want to do, her point of view was that it's possible to respect their autonomy and choices and still keep the family peace. All that's needed is some trust, empathy and creative thinking.

So, this morning we were going to walk down to the local dog shelter. It's a great place, where cheerful volunteers pair visitors up with enthusiastic dogs who need a walk and some loving attention. The children have all wanted a dog for a long time, so although there's an obvious danger of us falling in love with one of the shelter's residents, it also seems like an excellent way to gain some understanding of the ins and outs of looking after a real dog. Last week we took our new friends Dingo and Floki for a long stroll. It turned into an exploration of a part of our town that we'd never visited before and, besides enjoying these little dogs' happy company, there was the added bonus of coming across some restored Roman ovens from the first century AD. Who'd have known.

Our plan today was to take two or three dogs for a long walk and then stay to help the volunteers give everyone their lunch. It all felt fairly definite until one of my sons decided he didn't want to go. His reasons were completely understandable. He didn't want to annoy or disappoint anyone, but he hadn't quite understood the plan and how long the excursion would take. He was engrossed in something else and this just wasn't something he wanted to do. If his dad were here, there would have been no problem at all. He would have stayed at home doing his thing while the rest of us went out. Unfortunately, that couldn't work today.

I admit that when these things happen—and they sometimes do when it's me holding the fort—my first sense is definitely that it's a win/lose situation. There's an old narrative that just pops up in my head. It says that one person won't play ball and everyone else is losing out.

So, for a little while today, I was lost. There was a lot of disappointment and some frustrated tears as the two whose plan had been derailed felt like they were most definitely losing out. I sat and listened to their anger, whilst thinking of a way to work this out that didn't include dragging someone along against his will. Just then, my son who didn't want to go dog-walking came up to his brother and sister and suggested some fun things they could do this evening instead. He was clearly feeling bad for them and was seeing if he could make things okay without having to go along with the trip. The mood softened, everyone got creative and within a couple of minutes, the three had made an alternative plan together. We would go to the dog shelter on Friday when their dad would also be around, and today, instead of a long trip out, we would buy some tasty things, pack a picnic and eat lunch on the hill just behind the house.

The new plan was flawless. We popped down to the bakery, then headed up to laze on the hill in the bright sunshine, munching sandwiches and looking out at the view. Everyone was happy to be there. Two of our cats came to join us and there was some unexpected drama as the children saved a little mouse from the strong jaws of our youngest cat. He's a loving little creature but also a ferocious hunter. It wasn't the plan we had originally made, but it turned out just as well.

Of course, there are always going to be times when it's impossible to change a plan and you really need everyone to just come along. Journeys, appointments, other people's timetables—these often don't leave space for flexibility and changing moods. But many other times, a plan really can be changed. So long as the adults can embrace the idea that there's no inherent danger in this, there's a big possibility that children can figure out the win/win themselves. And today, as they let go of the original plan and figured out other ways to make the day work and still go dog-walking this week, it occurred to me what a great lesson in life these moments of empathetic negotiating are. In fact, it's probably a bigger lesson for the parents, steeped as we are in the idea that when one person wins, someone else inevitably loses. If we followed their lead, we might have a more equitable world, where power dynamics take second place to empathy and the search for common ground.

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