One of the best lessons that I learned in graduate school was to ask myself the question, “Do you want to die on that hill?” My advisor would pose that question when it seemed like we were putting on our armor to tilt at a windmill just like Don Quixote. He would encourage us to think strategically about the battles that we wanted to fight as some of them just aren’t worth it.

Parenting isn’t really any different.

There are some challenges that we have with our children that require us to fight the good fight even if it will exhaust us. This might be making sure that our kids brush their teeth or clean up their rooms or any one of a number of other places where it feels like you just don’t make progress. We fight these battles because we know, over time, that our children will form habits.

Then, there are the problems that you just can’t win.

In an interview on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast about design thinking, Dave Evans talks about these kinds of problems as fighting the law of gravity. It’s a constant that you can’t control because it is an outside force. Evans asserts that once you recognize where “gravity” exists in your life, you can design around it. Evan’s uses the example of wanting to be a professional musician, but still need to support a family of four. You won’t make any money initially, so he says that you need to design around that reality. Could you, he asks, design a life that allows you to have music as a hobby while still supporting your family?

As parents, we constantly run into challenges that are like fighting gravity. We need to accept them and re-think and re-frame the challenge. This is at the heart of being an innovative parent.

Reframing means thinking about what is really important to us with a particular parenting challenge. For example, one of my children has atrocious fashion sense (at least in my eyes). Left to her own devices, her clothing doesn’t even come close to matching or she would wear the same outfit over and over again. I could pick out her clothing for her (and she would lose her independence) or continually send her back upstairs each morning (and delay everyone getting out of the house for school). If I reframe, I realize that I can’t change her sense (or lack thereof) fashion sense, but I can design around it.

We made a couple of smaller changes to help us design a better solution without fighting a battle that we can’t win. First, we did make our expectations clear that clothing needed to be weather appropriate (i.e. the hill we needed to die on). Second, we had her pick her clothing out in advance for the week, giving us ample opportunity to teach (and talk about personal style). With her, we created a space to keep her clothes from the week to reduce her encounters with other choices. We worked together to hang up outfits in her closet, giving her more constrained choices. She still occasionally is a fashion disaster, but we can live with those days.

These changes weren’t made in one smooth motion. There were some failures along the way (e.g. setting out her clothes the night before just didn’t work; she picked out something different in the morning). We committed ourselves to action to deal with the parts of this challenge we could address.

Design thinking, as Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam points out, is about figuring out what constraints you have and moving around within them. This is at the heart of innovative parenting. You might be surprised how much creativity is within the box.

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