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Imagine you’re walking down the hallway at the office where you work, and at one point you notice a new sign hanging overhead with the words, “Don’t look up!” What would you do? You’d look up, of course. You’d want to know what all the fuss was about.
Now imagine it turned out that there was some construction going on overhead and if you looked up, you were likely to get sawdust in your eyes. Well, now it’s too late. You have sawdust in your eyes. You’d have been better off with no sign at all and walking right past without any inclination to look up.
It turns out, telling people what not to do is often a very good way to get exactly the kind of behavior you’re trying to avoid. And it works the same way with children that it does for adults. But we do it all the time with our kids. Here’s a case in point.
When Louise-Audrey Zenezini was six years old, her family moved from Italy to the United States. Shortly after they arrived, Louise-Audrey and her father, Stefano, decided it was time for her to learn to ride a bike. And the wide-open front yard of her new school was the perfect place to do it. It was a lush, green lawn that stretched out flat for dozens of yards in all directions, with nothing to get in her way. Nothing, that is, except for one thing: the flagpole.
Stefano took off the training wheels, saddled his girl onto her little pink bike, and gave her the expected instructions: “Keep pedaling, lean into a turn, and whatever you do, don’t run into that flagpole.” Then he gave her a gentle push, and she was off, keeping an eye, of course, on the flagpole.
She made it a few turns of the pedals before her first stop. Dad was there for her and got her started again. This time, there were a few more rotations and shouts of encouragement from Dad before another tenuous stop. And as anyone who’s taught children to ride a bike knows, the direction you push them has little to do with the direction they end up going. Each wobble reorients the bike as they lean into their fall to keep from falling over.
Finally, with a big push, Louise-Audrey was doing it, pedaling all on her own, hands on the handlebars, and eyes on the flagpole. Stefano was beaming as only a proud father can as he saw his little girl riding a bike all on her own. But with just a few more wobbles, Louise-Audrey was now getting closer and closer to the flagpole. Stefano managed to get out one last shout, “Don’t hit the flagpole!” right before his little girl took her last wobble-righting turn and ran straight into . . . the flagpole.
She had 359 degrees of freedom to ride her bike wherever she wanted, and somehow she ended up on a path that led her to the only three-inch-wide obstruction on the entire field.
What are the odds of that happening? Actually, quite high, according to Steven Vannoy and Craig Ross, authors of Stomp the Elephant in the Office. As part of their work as workplace and leadership consultants, two of their observations about human behavior are (1) the mind cannot avoid a “don’t,” and (2) we go toward our focus.
Most of us know if you tell a child to not put a shiny quarter in his or her mouth, that’s the first place it will go. But adolescents and adults aren’t immune to this phenomenon either. The authors demonstrate this brilliantly by telling the reader, “Don’t take time to look now, but when you examine the front cover of this book, you will notice that the elephant is in a peculiar shape. . . . When you look at it later, you will see what we are talking about.” Two paragraphs later they ask about it, and most readers have to admit that they immediately looked at the elephant on the cover. So none of us are exempt from this.
And that’s exactly what happened to little Louise-Audrey. Her father told her, “Don’t hit the flagpole.” So that’s what she was focusing on the whole time—the flagpole. And since we go toward our focus, that’s exactly where she ended up.
So, whether as the parent teaching, or the child learning, focus on what to do instead of what not to do. For Louise-Audrey, that might have been, “Ride your bike anywhere on this side of the yard.” Or for the child with the shiny quarter, it would be “put this in your pocket.” And for the hallway construction at work it might be, “Keep eyes straight forward.”
For older children it’s the difference in focusing on winning instead of not losing, or passing the exam instead of not failing, or developing healthy relationships instead of avoiding bad influences. That positive focus will take you a long way toward more effective learning for your child and more effective parenting for you.
As with all these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids. Then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- Do you think Louise-Audrey would have hit the flagpole if her dad had never told her, “Don’t hit the flagpole?”
- What kind of negative things do you spend time focusing on?
- What would be the positive alternative to those things to focus on instead?
- Can you think of an example where focusing on a negative would actually help you?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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