Adaptive Parenting After the Pandemic

The pandemic was a trauma felt by all. These lessons in adaptive parenting can help you meet your kids where they're at in order to support them moving forward.

The pandemic has moved us quickly from settled to unsettled. You’ve been cooking and working and teaching and caretaking — the list goes on. And you’re not alone. From individuals, to families, to schools and organizations, we’ve all had to alter our lives in some way.

Adaptive parenting requires awareness of where we’ve been, where we are now and how far we’ve come. It also means trusting our capability to handle ourselves and move through our environments. Taking some lessons from adaptive organizations about rolling with change can provide us a number of ideas that apply in the family just like the boardroom.

It’s guaranteed that becoming more adaptive will be difficult, but it will be totally worth it, because, whether you realize it or not, your greatest accomplishment may not be something you do, but someone you raise.

It turns out, though, those who were most adaptive have largely fared better than those who were too adapted to adjust.

Journey from the family room to the boardroom, and back again, and you might discover some valuable lessons about how to change and make changes as circumstances demand.

What does it mean to be adaptive?

Did you know that children typically fall about 10,000 times before taking their first steps? Once kids learn to walk and run, strength and determination no longer help them develop new movements. Instead, it is agility that allows them to adapt their movements to any conditions they find themselves in. It’s something scientists call proprioception, and it’s an intuitive sense of one’s position, surroundings and ability to move in one’s environment.

That’s the basis of what it means to be adaptive. It turns out, children are far more agile than adults, who tend to become more fixed in their thinking and stuck in their ways as they age. That’s because they come to identify with what they are able to do, whether it’s walk, run or do a cartwheel.

For groups of people to be adaptive they must be agile, like children, to change the form of their movements while clarifying their identity as a group based on their capabilities. During the pandemic, organizations, schools and businesses have all been forced to a choice point: adapt or fall behind. And to be sure, adaptive groups are not born, they’re made, and sometimes they’re refined like metal ore in the fire to get there.

Here are a few lessons families might consider:

Lesson 1: Relationships Matter

When teams of people have strong bonds, they develop more effective teamwork, trust and cohesion. That allows them to function better as a unit and adapt when needed. Within organizations, the current trend in business is to focus on relationships: those with customers as well as those with employees.

In families, the importance of relationships will count more now than ever, because kids are living through a traumatic event — a global pandemic — where things are largely out of our control, beyond our usual experience and cause us to feel as though our lives or the lives of others are in danger. This amounts to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would call an Adverse Childhood Experience, which can have lasting behavioral and health-related impacts.

Fortunately, a positive relationship with even just one adult can work to reverse the effects. So, parents need to mind their relationships with their children. Ensure that we are taking care of ourselves, so we have the capability to handle circumstances as they arise, helping us care for our kids. Be sure that everyone in the family is engaging in healthy habits: getting enough sleep, exercise, healthy food and avoiding isolation. You can also learn to speak your child’s love language to help strengthen ties. Does your child prefer words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, physical touch or receiving small gifts? The way children are wired to receive love is an important way to communicate with them and can give our expressions of love maximum impact. Not sure of their love language, check out the 5 Love Languages of Children by Dr. Gary Chapman.

You can also grow relationships within your family around the table by having device-free dining times. Have everyone switch on “do not disturb mode” and pledge uninterrupted time together around the table each day. While you’re at the table, be sure to remember past wins by sharing personal histories of family members who have overcome difficulties. Research has shown this can help kids build resilience because they will identify with family members and see themselves as having the capability to adapt and overcome. Simply telling stories about yourself, your own parents or other relatives makes for inspiring conversation.

Lesson 2: Know What’s Important and Move Toward It

Adaptive organizations know the principles, people and processes that are most important to uphold. These serve as a compass to the work they do and can help guide them in uncharted territory. And when they make decisions, they ask if it is going to move them toward or away from what matters.

In your family, try sorting out your own values. Discuss who and what matters to you and generate a list. It provides a source of constancy in changing times and helps everyone get on the same page so that when things get foggy you can have a lighthouse to look for. Being adaptive in this way will allow you to know if your parenting is moving in the direction away from what matters and prompt you to turn the ship around and move toward your values.

Teams also get clear on their identity and purpose by asking three key questions: “Who are we?” “Why are we doing this?” and “Why are we doing this this way?” Try asking yourself those same questions to clarify your own identity, purpose and form as a parent. It will help you reflect and redirect when needed in whatever parenting situations you might find yourself.

Beyond knowing who you are and what matters to you, managing expectations is another crucial element of what adaptive organizations do to reduce the tension between ideal and real. The gap between expectation and reality can be a pain point for many, because there are only two options: moving expectation closer to reality or bringing reality closer to expectation. Becoming aware of your own ideals can be a first step to alleviating the strain when circumstances seem far from what you’d want them to be. If you can master this art form, it’s something you can model for your kids so they can do the same when things don’t go their way.

A great place to start understanding your expectations is by asking yourself what you want your kids to remember from this historic time a couple of decades from now. Then, filter your actions and situations through the lens of whether you’re bringing reality closer to that expectation.

Lesson 3: Take Action Together

During the pandemic, many organizations made sure they were taking care of their people while also supporting the consumers in their communities. And just as companies have adapted to care for people within their workforce and communities, you can give kids a sense of purpose during uncertain times by allowing them to volunteer. Start with serving the family at home in new and special ways and then branch out from there in your community.

Achieving adaptability with any group takes intentional work, time and patience. And that’s where this third lesson from adaptive organizations really becomes crucial. We must be committed to acting in line with our values.

Consider a project management technique that many businesses use to help them adjust as needed — the weekly review. Set aside time each week to discuss what went well, what didn’t go well and what you will focus on in the next week in your family. While you’re focused on how things are going, consider building systems and habits instead of setting goals. This moves you from focusing on what you do to how you’ll accomplish it. Instead of planning to go for a three-mile run each day, ritualize putting your running shoes on each day near the door.

One thing adaptive businesses know is that what gets scheduled gets done and what you do shapes who you are. Plan regular days to focus on certain activities and tasks in your family — including fun ones. Just like businesses might close out their bookkeeping weekly, have set times to focus on different aspects of your parenting and family life, rather than letting the list pile on and trying to get to it all “when you have time.”

One that’s sure to be a hit is Ice Cream Fridays. Go out for ice cream on Fridays to celebrate the culmination of the week. It’ll be a special reserved time that everyone will look forward to.


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