My daughter, Emma, got her first job recently, working at a self-serve frozen yogurt shop. She enjoyed being trained to prepare the yogurt machines, how to keep the area clean, and take payments from customers. She also enjoyed interacting with customers to help them make yogurt selections. She had a great experience on her first day, learning how to do the job well. The job also allowed her to earn money, which made it possible for her to gain power as she transitions to adulthood.
Everything changed on Emma’s second day. She was blamed for money shortage in the cash register from the previous day’s receipts, even though several employees had access to the register. She was frustrated and discouraged when she came home and told me about it. The event seemed very unfair to her.
As parents, we don’t like to see our children suffer. We could comfort them by agreeing with them about how unfair such events are. We could become frustrated and discouraged, similar to our children, about the organization they work for. We could say a lot of things to diminish the stress and make our children feel better. All these reactions have one thing in common: they focus on how we wish reality to be rather than how reality is.
There’s another way to respond. Instead of thinking that such events shouldn’t occur, we can accept that they’re normal. Unfair events are inevitable in our lives. As parents, we can allow our children to undergo suffering. We can move beyond judging events as fair or unfair and focus on the learning opportunity. We can guide our children, not to make them feel better, but to help them understand reality. We do this so our children can be powerful enough to deal with reality as it is, instead of dwelling on how they wish it to be. Focusing on how reality is guides their attention toward actions that can lead toward outcomes that are fair.
I told Emma that she was fortunate to experience such an event so early in her job career. Right now, at the outset of her work-life, she can make a choice about how to respond to such unfair events. I told her that once the event had occurred, the only thing left that’s within her ability to influence, is her choice. Her choice now will influence how she’ll perceive stressful events and how she’ll interact with them in the future.
I told her that she can choose to react, focusing on how unfair it is to be blamed for the cash shortage, or she can choose to respond by being curious about learning how to deal with people that blame others. The former shifts her attention to how she thinks others should act instead of how they did act. She’ll dwell on wondering why they blame others, which focuses her on what she can’t control: other people’s behaviors. The latter shifts her attention to how others did act. She’ll dwell on how she needs to act in response to the event, which focuses her on what she can control: herself.
We want to feel powerful when interacting with the struggles we inevitably have in life. We retain our power by facing reality and working with it. This is what Emma did. She stood up for herself by expressing the facts firmly, yet in a kind manner. She wasn’t the only one who had access to the cash register, so any employee could be responsible for the cash shortage. Her boss understood her argument and wasn’t offended because Emma was respectful in how she expressed herself. She didn’t accuse her boss of unfairly blaming her; she simply explained the event in a clear, firm, and respectful way. She also suggested a solution to the problem: assign one person to the cash register and make that person count the money at the end of the shift.
Responding to this stressful event in this way helped Emma remain calm and direct her attention in a curious manner. She learned that she can take action to influence a stressful situation toward being more fair. Having a job to make money gives her power, but it’s this kind of internal power of directing her attention that’s most important for her to learn. That kind of power can be wielded anywhere, anytime regardless of how much money she may have. Such power helps her direct her choices as she finds and lives the many steps of her life.