This piece is a slightly shortened excerpt from the new book, "Four Lessons from My Three Sons: How You Can Raise Resilient Kids," by Jeff Nelligan.
Because I had spent many years as a lowly operative in the political realm, I grew skilled at situational awareness. 'SA' as my three boys and I called it -- getting a feel for the dynamics of the people around you, and the places you’re in.
I wanted them to have active minds that really tried to understand the behavior of their peers as well as total strangers. I wanted them to learn how to handle themselves. So here’s how the instruction began: When they were very young – the eldest only eight-years old -- the four of us were in a crowded department store where I had gone to buy a blazer. Looking for a helpful salesman, I told them in a whisper (which immediately got their attention), “Guys, I want you to watch this closely.”
I carefully walked by four salespeople, then circled back to the third. I got the help I needed from him and came back to the boys to say, “Okay. Tell me what you saw.” They talked about why they thought I’d passed over different clerks and my middle kid asked, “Why did you go to that third guy? He wasn’t even next to the jackets.”
“Here’s why: In every situation, you gotta look at people and figure them out.” Blank stares. I doggedly continued: “If you need something, like I needed a blazer, you need to decide who is the best person to help you. I looked at the four sales guys – their clothes, the way they were standing, if they looked nice and smart, if they were smiling -- then I chose that one man because I thought he would help me the most. Gents, you gotta read the crowd.” There was a faint glimmer of understanding, but there was a ways to go.
So how did I drive it home? Simple. I made them do it. Not long after, we were in a big indoor mall. I took three $5 bills out of my wallet and handed one to each kid. “Here’s the deal. I want each of you to go into one of the stores and get change for the fiver. This isn’t a race. You have to go alone and then come back tell me about what you did.”
They were excited! Yeah, I kept an eye on them, the youngest being five. Each one took off, navigating through shoppers, going into various stores, two striking out at first, but then going into other stores.
They were overjoyed to share their stories. We did this change-the-five deal often. And there were other stunts. I’d have the 9-year-old go into a convenience store with cash – and some of these were rough-and-tumble places -- to get beef jerky and Doritos. I’d pull into the parking lot of a carry-out restaurant and instruct the 8-year-old take our order, memorize it, and then go into the place and get it and pay for it. At airports, I put the eldest, then later the middle kid, in charge of getting boarding passes while the rest of us stood by. At ages 11 and 10.
All three sons soon became accustomed to this independence. They’d become totally engaged in these “tests” and afterward, they’d be thrilled to talk about their treks.
Virtually everywhere we went, from the most pedestrian places to the most exciting, we’d play the game. What do you see? Who is doing what? These opportunities are all around us.
Self-assurance just doesn’t happen, it’s gained through encounters of all kinds. Get them reading the crowd. Don’t be tell yourself you’ll do it next time. Do it today.
And when you do, tell us how it went! Meantime, here is Jeff's book. And do you have another "independence builder" your family uses? Please share!