Forget about the virus! This is LIFE!
The Stoplight Technique
Those people in our lives who can respect our boundaries will love our wills, our opinions, our separateness. Those who can’t respect our boundaries are telling us that they don’t love our no’s. They only love our yeses, our compliance. “I only like it when you do what I want.”
(Henry Cloud, When to Say Yes; How to Say No)
Well THAT’S harsh! (…But true)
Most of us really do not like to hear “No.” Those of us who have had or have young children can attest to how much younger people dislike hearing a “no” answer. But “no” is like magic! As Anne Lamott wrote, “No is a complete sentence.” A genuine and honest “no” gives value to their genuine “yes.”
It comes down to this: Do you want to be needed by the people in your life? Or wanted? Have you said “yes” to someone’s request and regretted it? When you were with that person, doing that thing you wish you had said “no” to, were you at your best? Fully present, enjoying the person and the thing they asked you to do? Not likely.
The other person does not feel wanted, because in that moment… they aren’t. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it wasn’t the best choice for either you or the other person.
When we say “no,” or “not now” or when we negotiate what we will and won’t offer, (see The Four Answers blog,) we are giving ourselves and the other person the opportunity to be healthy, to be resourceful, and to have a more authentic relationship with us where it’s ok to just be who we are.
Have you ever found yourself supremely annoyed that the people in your household won’t give you the space you need?
Have you told them what you need? Oh. That. I know – you were too busy trying to concentrate to do that. Here’s an easier way to do that. The example I’m about to give is a parent-child duo, but this idea can be adapted to any of the humans in your household. (Trust me, your dogs, cats and birds do not care about your boundaries:)
Mindy and Marvin
Mindy is a 37-year-old single parent to Marvin, who is a wildly creative, incredibly active and imaginative 4 year old. Mindy and Marvin are pretty much alone in COVID captivity. Marvin’s Dad is under Stay-at-Home orders in another state, unable to reasonably travel. Mindy has family that help via video, but day in and day out, it’s just Mindy and Marvin, and Mindy is trying to telework.
Marvin doesn’t understand why he can’t go to preschool and see his friends anymore. They tried doing the Skype classroom his school was offering, but Marvin pretty much treated the video classroom as another TV. He could stick with it for a few minutes, a little excited to see faces he knew, but for the most part he just ignored the screen and did his own thing.
Mindy is frustrated beyond belief that Marvin isn’t content to do his own thing when she has be on Zoom calls for work. He seems to magically know when exactly the wrong time is to relentlessly pepper Mindy with questions and demands for attention, and he makes a beeline for it.
“He’s like that cat that knows exactly who’s allergic to him,” explained Mindy, exasperated. “He finds whoever is most likely to go into anaphylaxis and rubs himself aaaallll over them. Thanks, Marvin.”
Of course, Marvin isn’t consciously trying to sabotage Mindy’s job and she knows it. It’s just incredibly exhausting being pulled in all directions, 24/7. Mindy has no space and time to herself.
Mindy is a phenomenally creative parent. She had already devised a “stations” approach for Marvin. Similar to what he had in preschool, Mindy and Marvin set up their living room in four distinct sections with different kinds of play and learning in each one. (Since they weren’t going to have company over any time soon, it seemed like a worthwhile trade-off.)
Mindy set up her telework station in their dining room. She can see the whole living room from the table and her camera faces the opposite direction, centered on the corner of the wall. This minimizes “guest Zoom appearances” from Marvin.
There are times when Mindy is working that Marvin can easily interrupt. There are other times when she might be able to stop what she’s doing, but only if it’s for something Marvin can’t do on his own that is not immediate. (For example, when he can’t get his headphones to work.) There are other times, like conference calls, that Mindy ideally will only be interrupted if the house is on fire or if Marvin is throwing up, bleeding or otherwise in peril.
Mindy and Marvin took a poster board and cut it to the shape of a large stop light. They then cut out three big circles, colored one red, another yellow and the third green. The put a loop of tape on each circle and hung the board on the end of the dining room table.
Then they took three pieces of paper and drew pictures of the kinds of things she can be interrupted for correlated with each stoplight color. They talked through which things were which. They also decided which stations Marvin could play in when the light was on which color. On green, he could play in any of the stations. On yellow, the music and noise station was off limits. The video station was okay with headphones. The building blocks station and the reading corner for fair game on any color.
They Don’t Know Unless You Tell Them
Mindy is now in the practice of switching her colors as she moves through her day. Marvin really doesn’t like it when Mindy is on red and he wants to play his drums. Sometimes he will do it just to show her how mad he is. However, because they have a clear agreement and Marvin knows exactly why he is in trouble when Mindy has to come off of a call to deal with him. When he follows the rules and respects the system for a block of time, he gets an incentive.
Mindy and Marvin have a positive behavior system in place where he gets pebbles in his jar every time he gets caught doing something good. He trades those pebbles in for special times or treats with Mom when he gets a certain number. At times when Marvin is doing the wrong thing, Mindy just has to point at the jar and give Marvin “the look.” He knows right away that he’s getting in his own way and sometimes changes his behavior so that he can get the rewards he wants.
Sometimes Good Enough, is Good Enough
I would be a bald-faced liar if I said this stoplight system fixed it all and now all is well in Mindy and Marvin Land. It isn’t. It’s hard for both of them. At times either one of them will mess it up. Mindy will forget to move the color and get mad when Marvin does what she didn’t expect him to. Sometimes Marvin will be tired or hungry or just sick and tired of being inside and intentionally start banging on things when Mindy is on red. BUT! It’s working better than it was before, and, when it all goes left, they have a framework to refer to in order to understand what went wrong and how they might change moving forward.
Mindy is now meeting her parenting goals even when things don’t go well. She has at least a little bit more peace and ability to do her work. Marvin knows what’s expected of him, has the ability to earn stuff he wants, and can easily understand that the results he gets come from the choices he makes. It ain’t always pretty, but Mindy reports that it is definitely an improvement.
Not Just Kid Stuff
Make no mistake about it: This is not just for parenting. Communicating clearly and visually with any (human) members of our household is helpful! As long as you remember to change your color as your need for concentration changes, you can each navigate one another with fewer interruptions and greater understanding.
This approach helps household members communicate and connect better. It also helps us each be more intentional about how we are using our time. I am all for the Win-Win!
Give it a try and see what happens. I’d love to hear from you, good, bad or otherwise. Let’s figure out what works best for your unique household.
UP NEXT: Anger v. Rage. How to tell the difference, and how to use both well! (Does anybody read my taglines? Bonus points if you let me know you did!)