My Essential Wisdom for Parenting: 'Instead'

Using the concept of "Instead" guides children to solve their own puzzles and allows their personalities to flourish.

  • Author's note: The following was delivered at the International Conference, Parenting 2.0 Talks, in SanDiego, CA on Friday, Aug. 17.

In 1991, my son Chris was almost 8; Kate (then insisting she was KaTIE) was 5. Armed with my Master of Social Work degree, I was helping to administer a community mental health agency. 

Social Service professionals often don’t like to consider "the filthy lucre" so I did the fund raising. In March, I was deep into the planning of our annual fundraising event. It always included an auction, so I’d pick up the children early, and we’d collect the donations given to the agency.

One lovely day, as I arrived at the day care center to get the children, I was greeted by KaTIE, who handed me a colorful, abstract drawing on card stock.  “Here, Mama,” she said “It’s for the auction!” Well, the art may not have been Picasso, but it certainly touched me.  

And then a shoe dropped as I thought, “How can we sell this at the auction?”  Katie needs to know this is valued!

I blithely went to a local framer and asked for something inexpensive, yet classy, as a donation. She laughed and was happy to comply. I picked it up a week later.  It was charming! And on the back, my darling wrote, “Hope you like it!” and signed it in CURSIVE “Katie 4.4.91”

How many of you in the audience have more than one child? How many of you would NOT have a dilemma on your hand if one child spontaneously gave something and the other hadn’t even considered it? 

Yes, Chris was disappointed that he hadn’t thought of it first, “I want to give something too, but I’m not a good artist!”

“Well, Sweetheart, let’s think about what you ARE good at doing, INSTEAD?” 

I don’t recall whether or not it was his first idea … often it’s about the second or third or 27th idea! Here’s what he decided: His best skill/talent at the time was reading. He would read a book into a recorder and then the book and recording would be the auction lot.

I approached the local independent bookstore and asked if they’d be willing to donate a children’s book. Asbolutely, they said, up to $10 value.

Chris got to choose the book and selected Caps for Sale, written By Esphyr Slobodkina (the name is pronounced ess-FEER sloh-BOD-kee-nah).  We had some technical challenges, like how to let the reader/listener who was following along know when the page was turned (I think we found a bell), and the book and recording were finally packaged the ready for the night of the event.


I could tell you more of the story but let’s stop there. My essential wisdom, my gift to you today is “INSTEAD”. This panel is about communication, yet I believe “INSTEAD” is a revolutionary concept to have in your trick bag that leads children to have amazing ability. There are truly very few limits to the human spirit; and thoughtful, deliberate parents can lead their children to stretch those limits. 

Raising children with excellent life skills, to me, is all about plan B …  sometimes all the way to plan X. Thomas Alva Edison, who the Americans credit as the discoverer of the way to harness electricity said, “I haven’t failed; I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” My next sentence is almost always, “OK, then, what can we do instead?"

When I was invited to address this group, I knew I wanted to talk about “Instead” because, to me, it’s the basis for teaching ALL life skills. And I couldn’t come up with a thing that I hadn’t already posted in a P20 Discussion. So, “instead,” I dropped an email to my children, now 30 and 27. Who would know better than they what the philosophy is all about and how it guides children? I reached Kate by phone. She said she’d been thinking about this ever since I dropped her the note. She had two stories. I chose this one.

She said it illustrates for her what can come of guiding our children while allowing them to be who they are. It brings out the best in them.  

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Grace August 21, 2012 at 08:22 PM
It seems to me this philosophy works for every situation in life. Thank you for sharing it!
Melissa Pazen August 21, 2012 at 08:29 PM
Thanks for your note. I find the skills I provided my children are now serving their adult selves well. They can discuss differences without anger or blaming; and they often get what they want! When Chris was working for the Dave Chappell Show, one of the senior staff asked him to do something. His response was "you know, ___(colleague name)___ would be even better than I would at that. Do you want me to ask him or would you like to do it instead?" Surprisingly, Chris got a different assignment that he liked much better! I love your name or handle! It resonates for me (although when I was a gawky child, my parents always told me it was a good thing they hadn't given me the middle name "Grace").


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