Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I give a lot of thought to this idea that parenting does not have to be a win-lose situation. And I try to apply it to my parenting and my everyday life with my kids, and we are all mostly very happy.

Once in a while, though, I wonder if I am not just using my high principles as an excuse, and if what I am doing is not just laissez-faire parenting.

Do you have any thoughts on this matter? How would you recognize the difference?

--Thinking Mom

It seems to me that these are actually two separate questions. The first question is whether win-win solutions somehow impair people by denying them the experience of dealing with losing. It rings true to me that successful people are not stopped in their tracks by occasional failure, or by losing from time to time. But how, exactly, do we help ourselves and others develop a healthy attitude towards losing? I think that problems with losing and failure are linked to identifying oneself as a loser or a failure. If we are able to view the failure in context – as an experience to learn from, instead of a label for our psyche – then I think it becomes simply something that has happened, instead of who we are. The truth is, striving for win-win solutions has the potential to empower us, to remind us that situations are not inherently doomed, and that we are not failures when we occasionally fail. From what I’ve seen, winning a lot actually causes most people to feel more mellow and accepting of occasional losses. I think repeated success tends to enable people to cultivate an interest in what sometimes goes wrong without internalizing those failures.

The other question I see here is about control, engagement, and happiness. Children are at the mercy of their parents. Parents, whether they realize it or not, have a huge amount of control over the world that their children are born into and have access to on a daily basis. People thrive when they are engaged in their world, in their activities, and in their lives. The question, then, is whether parents can take their children’s happiness at face value. If everyone seems content, if there are no major problems, if it looks like a win-win situation… Is it really? What if the kids would be happier going to the zoo around the corner, but they don’t even know that’s a possibility? What if they would rather have their parent playing a game with them than working on the computer? What if….

The only people who can answer those what-if questions are the people around you. The only way to know whether a particular “win-win” is actually just a “kinda okay-that’ll do for now” is to check in, with yourself and with everyone else involved.

If it feels like laissez-faire parenting, dig deeper into your own mind. Is this anxiety about what people should do, what learning should look like? Or is this a reaction to subtle cues that the environment could be richer, the parents could be more engaged, the locus of control could be more clearly within each individual? I think that’s where the real answers are.