My 5 year-old son came home upset from school the other day. He explained that he had tripped and fallen down at recess and, instead of checking on him, one of his classmates responded by saying, “Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread girl!” He explained that this meant that she did not like him and didn’t care about him because that’s not what he would have done. I asked him if there were any other possible reasons that she could have responded that way (like maybe she wanted him to chase her and play together?), and his decisive response was “NO,” thus providing a wonderful example of his tendency toward inflexible (although age-appropriate) thinking.
Thinking flexibly is an important skill that, like most skills, comes more naturally to some than others. In the above example, since he was unable to do so alone, I thought it was important for us to generate other possible motivations for his classmate’s behavior so that he could begin to think more flexibly about it, the consequences of which would be 1) him feeling better about the situation and 2) eventual increased flexibility in assessing events.
Thinking flexibly helps us to avoid perceiving neutral experiences as negative ones (especially for sensitive people like my son), so that we are hurt less and are able to enjoy more fully our relationships with friends and family (none of whom will respond exactly as we would in every situation). But cognitive flexibility also helps us in so many other ways: from academic learning to creative problem solving to effortlessly changing course in the face of an obstacle, being able to adjust our approaches to situations, problems, and people is an essential ability for success in all areas of life.