Helping Kids through Change and Hard Choices

This summer, our family was faced with a choice that was ultimately easy to make, but left us with difficult consequences and lots of change. It was complicated because it directly affected all three of our children.

Our girls are involved in a handful of activities and programs, one of which has been an integral part of each of their lives since preschool. This program, successfully operated together by two instructors for a number of years, was suddenly divided. One instructor retained the original program in its entirety. The other left to start their own competing business across town.

While this situation could sound petty, like my own personal problem from the privileged middle class, the truth is it was bigger than that. We, as a family, have put great amounts of faith, trust, and money into our children’s participation in this activity. We know both instructors pretty well. They have each spent several hundred hours with our children over the years.

And it may sound illogical and immature, but I felt hurt that the business relationship had fallen apart. Perhaps even betrayed. I realize that these things happen frequently and it’s not all about me, but in the moment, it’s pretty easy to become somewhat self-centered when problems arise. I knew if I was having these feelings, it was likely my kids were too. Todd and I understood that it was important for us to negotiate our response, in the aftermath of the business shake-up, very carefully. Six young eyes were watching us closely.

They’re always watching…

It took some time to accept that big changes were going to happen in our lives whether we wanted them to or not. Once we acknowledged that change was a foregone reality, it was time to deal with things in a way that ultimately left a positive impression on our kids.

We were left with choices. Lots of choices. Would we stay with our original program and one of the instructors? Would we follow the other instructor to the new location? Should we try to divide our time and participate in portions of each program? Would we leave both instructors and find someone else to teach our kids? Or, should we leave the activity altogether and find something else to occupy our time?

In order to decide our future, we employed the following strategies:

We took a break.

For two weeks following the big announcement, our family did not speak of “the situation.” Not a word. This does not mean that it wasn’t thought about—far from it. What to do about our choices monopolized a larger than necessary portion of my brain activity for a good long while. In addition, Todd and I prayed about it. A lot.

We identified what was most important to us.

That two week break gave Todd and me an opportunity to gain clarity. After that time, we were able to identify three primary needs to meet as we navigated this choice with our kids: choose a program led by someone with integrity, minimize the amount of inevitable chaos and disruption that change always brings, and make sure the kids are on board.

We labeled integrity as our most important factor.

Todd and I are careful about who we allow to spend large amounts of time with our children. While we are aware that humans make mistakes, we work pretty hard at surrounding ourselves with folks who at the very least try to behave ethically. In addition, we want our kids to own up to their mistakes, so it’s important that the adults in their lives are able to do likewise.

In our dilemma this summer, we were not privy to all the confidential details, so we relied on our observation skills and did some guesswork. We watched how the situation unfolded on social media. We identified staff members that we suspected would make good decisions concerning which instructor to follow. We considered the wise counsel of a few other trusted families.

When offered sound advice, follow it.
When offered sound advice, follow it.

We ignored temptations to follow the crowd.

Sometimes, new and shiny things are only cool because they are new and shiny. Todd and I once bought a brand new minivan with all the bells and whistles. We were pretty certain it would meet all of our transportation needs. Plus, all of our friends were driving shiny, new minivans, so obviously we needed to as well. Unfortunately, that thing almost qualified for the lemon law. We ended up getting rid of it after a couple years.

For our kids, the choice about which program to attend was scary for them. Some of their friends planned to stay with the instructor at the original place. Others intended to head to the new location. A few left altogether. Our girls didn’t want to end up doing the wrong thing and regretting the consequences.

When kids (and adults) are in these situations, it can be really tempting to enter into “group think” and go in the direction that it appears everyone else is heading. That can be a dangerous path to follow. I think we chose the path we did, at least in part, because for a while it looked like no one else would. Our family has a tendency to do that sometimes.

We were realistic and practical.

If we wanted to divide our time between two separate locations for one activity, we were ultimately going to be adding another activity to our already full family calendar. It was not realistic. Going to an entirely new instructor or giving up the activity altogether were not ideal options, either. In our case this summer, our kids were already reeling from the idea of losing one important person from their lives, losing both was more than they could comfortably deal with. We knew we really only had two choices left—one instructor or the other. We had to pick a side.

We listened to our kids.

Todd and I asked all three of the girls how they felt about the situation. We weighed pros and cons with them. We waited for them to change their minds—they didn’t. We talked about commitments, discomfort, loss, and adaptation. We observed their nonverbals and listened for unsaid words. It was very important to both of us that our girls expressed their own opinions, rather than simply reflecting our own back to us. It wasn’t easy, but it was very important.

The family comedian keeps discussions lighthearted.
The family comedian keeps discussions lighthearted.

We made a decision and then stood firmly upon it.

After devoting a ton of time, thought, and energy into a big decision with our kids, we knew we had to own it as a family. This is not the same as being critical of different choices other families may have made. It is our hope that all families who have to work with their kids on a big change go through a similar process as ours, even if their outcome is not the same. So, we got excited about our upcoming year. We talked about fun new changes. We planned for the future.

In the end, we stayed with the instructor at our original program. We are sad to no longer see some familiar faces, and we said goodbye to them emotionally, even if we weren’t able to physically. We made the choice we did because we find ourselves drawn to the integrity and enthusiasm of the families and staff that stuck around like us. We are a few weeks into the newest season of our fall activities, and things are going very well with all of them. We are happy with our choice and the changes that came with it.

My hope for parents who read this is that they don’t simply take a difficult choice that affects their kids and just make it for them. Or worse yet, let those kiddos make it by themselves. Decisions that are really big affect the whole family and need to be made as a team. Be the parent. Be the one that takes a moment to teach. Inspire an opportunity to critically think through change and life’s hard choices.