What’s your plan for that?
This is one of my favorite questions for kids. The earlier we can train ourselves as parents to hand over the reigns to our kids, the easier it will be for us as parents of teens to give them the autonomy they require to flourish into adulthood.
So, what does it look like in action?
Toddlers and Preschoolers
With little kids, the open-ended question alone will probably be too broad, but you can get in the habit by using it as a preface:
Dad: Looks like you’ve had a lot of fun here. Now it’s clean up time. What’s your plan for that? Are you going to put the blocks away first or the trucks?
As you continue to use this construct, leave more and more space after asking What’s your plan before offering choice of how to tackle what needs to be done.
Mom: You told me you have a book report due this week. What’s your plan for that?
By this time, if you have been using the technique for a while, your child probably does have a plan. Where your child might still need support is in remembering extra factors:
Kid: I’m going to write my rough draft tonight, edit it tomorrow night and copy it over on Thursday.
Mom: Sounds like a good plan. Did you remember you have Scouts on Thursday night?
Kid: Oh. I forgot.
Mom: So maybe you need to revise your plan.
Kid: Yeah, okay. I guess I’ll leave more time on Wednesday to both edit and copy.
Mom: Sounds good. Let me know if you need any help.
Of course, the fact that kids have a plan does not mean that the plan will work or that that they will follow through with it. That’s okay. That’s what growing up is all about—making mistakes and then having to adjust after having made them.
Middle School Kids
Kid: Dad, I need you to take me to the craft store to get clay for my model of the pyramids.
Dad: Sorry, kiddo, that won’t work this afternoon. The plumber is coming, and I have to be here to meet him.
Kid: But my project is due Monday, and I have to do it today because I have away tournaments this weekend.
Dad: That’s tough. You had planned on my being able to take you to the craft store. If you had asked me ahead of time and I had put it in my calendar, I would have scheduled the plumber some other time. What’s your new plan going to be?
Kid: I don’t know. Maybe Mom can take me when she gets home. I was going to Jimmy’s house tonight but I guess I can stay home and work on the project.
Dad: I don’t think Mom is getting home until after dinner tonight. What other solution can you think of.
Kid: What?! She’s not? That sucks. How am I going to get this done?
Dad: I don’t know. But I know you’ll find a way!
Our need to rescue our kids in situations like this is SO hard to resist. But when we maintain our faith that they will think of something, we give our children enormous power and self-confidence. We are saying to them, “You are capable and creative, and I trust you.”
When kids do mess up, you can always circle back through with them and do some post-mistake brainstorming. Let’s say, for example, that the middle schooler above decides to build the pyramid for his assignment out of cardboard, but the glue he uses really doesn’t hold everything together and by the time he gets the project to school, it is looking pretty subpar. Not unexpectedly the teacher takes off points for presentation, and he gets a lower grade than expected.
At this point a parent can do some review.
Mom: I can see you are bummed that you got a low grade on that project. What do you wish you had done instead?
Kid: I should have checked the tournament schedule ahead of time.
Mom: Good point. What else?
Kid: Well, I guess I could have worked on it the weekend before the tournament.
Mom: True. Anything else?
Kid: Or I could have at least gotten the clay the weekend before. Actually, I could have made it out of salt dough. That’s what John did, and it turned out pretty well.
Mom: That was a good idea. Next time you’ll think of that if you get in a jam again.
By not rescuing this student, his parents sent him a clear message that his schoolwork is his responsibility. By not over reacting to the poor grade but taking the time to review their son’s approach, they sent the message, we expect you to learn from your mistake because we do care about your grades, but we trust that you will figure things out because you are creative and capable.
Some kids are not, in fact, quite ready for this much responsibility. That’s okay. Just go back to asking the question What’s your plan? And then follow up with a choice: Are you going to make your pyramid out of modeling clay or out of baker’s clay? Or Your project is due in 10 days; do you want to get the supplies you need Saturday or Sunday? In this way you help chunk or scaffold the assignment but still give your child some empowerment.
High School Kids
The older your kids get, the harder it can be not to lecture them about their inconsistencies. Let’s say that your child has announced her plan to eat more healthily, and yet when you arrive home from work, she is sitting on the coach with a big bowl of ice cream. How do you support her plan without sounding like an interfering nag—especially when it is something that you probably care a great deal about yourself? This can be a delicate conversation to navigate:
Dad: Hi Sweetie, I’m curious about something. May I ask you a personal question?
Kid: Uh, I guess so.
Dad: Well, last week you told me you want to make better choices around eating, so I’m just wondering how that’s going for you?
Kid: Ugh. Not too great, I guess. It’s really hard to eat well, and it takes too much discipline.
Dad: So, you feel like eating well requires a lot of will power?
Kid: Yeah. It’s just too hard. I’m not sure it is worth it.
Dad: Mmmmm… Could you share with me what your plan was?
Kid: Well, my plan was make a bunch of healthy snacks ahead of time, so they’d be ready to go when I got home from school, but I never got around to that last weekend.
Dad: I see. Do you think you’ll make snacks this weekend or do you think you need to adjust your plan?
Kid: I don’t know. I probably could make the time to make them but after a stressful week, I really just want to hang out with my friends.
Dad: I can understand that. So how could you adjust your plan?
Kid: I don’t know. I was looking at this one website that had ideas for easy to fix healthy snacks. Maybe I wouldn’t have to do the work on Saturday as long as I had the ingredients on hand.
Dad: That could work. What would you have to do to make that happen?
Kid: Not much really. Just make sure the stuff I need is on the shopping list by Saturday.
Dad: Sounds like it is worth a try.
Notice that Dad never mentions the ice cream. He doesn't have to tell her it is a poor choice. She knows that already. Notice how he asks permission to ask a personal question. With teenagers it is important to acknowledge that they have a right to their privacy—even about their own plans for eating more healthily. Notice that Dad never makes a suggestion of his own! Dad might have some really good ideas. He might have put a lot of work himself into eating a better diet and actually have some sound advice. But too often, offering information shuts our kids down. The fact that this girl has researched options shows that she is thinking about it. At this point there is more power in giving her the opportunity to find out what doesn’t work for her than in telling her what to do. When she has tried two or three ideas without success, she might then be open to Dad sharing with her what has worked for him (but again, asking permission to share will continue to send the message that he trusts her to ultimately find what will work for her—rather than that he is the man with all the answers).
What’s Your Plan for That?
One of the other benefits of the what’s your plan for that question is that it helps kids focus in on what strategy they are going to use to accomplish a goal. Carol Dweck’s research has shown that when we praise kids for using a strategy effectively we build of their sense of autonomy and their self-confidence that even if they haven’t found what works yet, they will find it eventually. This question also helps motivate students because it gives them ownership and control over the issue at hand—even as you set the parameters.
Give it a try and share below how it shifts cooperation and motivation in your house!