Disaster was narrowly averted in our household this past weekend — just.
After six weeks of a sort of strange, pandemic-induced Groundhog Day, waking up each day and trying to come up with new home-based activities to do with two lively preschoolers, while also trying to get in some work time, I’ve entered a surreal parallel universe where the boundaries of time have become hazy at best. Just as over the summer holidays of long, relaxing hours spent in enjoyment you might find yourself asking, What day is it?, my days have all been blurring into one as of late.
As a consequence, I spent a good portion of Friday thinking that it was Saturday already. Our son’s fourth birthday was on Sunday, which incidentally was also Mother’s Day, so a day of celebrations all round. Being a day ahead of myself, I spent all afternoon excitedly telling him that the following day was his birthday. I even put him to bed around 7.30pm with hearty encouragement to enjoy his last sleep as a three year old, and that in the morning, he would be a big four year old. He went to sleep with a smile on his face.
And then my partner came home from her parents place, where she had begun preparations to make a triceratops cake for the big day, and duly told me that it was indeed, only Friday.
Many facepalms ensued. How could I have gotten a day ahead? The answer to that question being somewhat understandable and not overly relevant to the situation, the next question became, How was I going to fix this??
After a fair amount of debate about how much weight to put on this — my instinct being to play it down and signal that it was a silly mistake in the hopes that he would follow my lead, while my partner thought that I should front foot it and make a big deal of apologising profusely to our boy — we agreed upon a plan on how to frame the situation, and hopefully avoid a Chernobyl-sized full meltdown.
I would tell our son of my mistake, tell him I was really sorry, let it sink in for a moment, and then drop in the big exciting twist: Today could be a practice run birthday! Complete with blueberry pancakes for breakfast, with a candle on top.
It worked, kind of. He was disappointed for sure and quiet for a little while, but there was no lengthy tantrum as I had feared. He raised his eyebrow at me dubiously at the suggestion of a practice birthday, but got into it pretty quickly after the fourth or fifth re-lighting and blowing out of the practice birthday candle. He had some crankier than usual moments throughout the day, but also got some quality one-on-one time outside with his grandad which is always a highlight for him. With an increasingly entertaining and attention-seeking 21 month old sister, it has been apparent that he has been feeling the sting of no longer being the baby. So with him having obvious mixed feelings about turning four and his poor little brain’s limited capacity for reason and emotional regulation, I think we did a pretty good job of keeping him in reasonably good spirits.
Making use of this kind of positive framing in a hard situation will come as second nature to most parents.
It is instinctual to try to avoid hurt or upset, and to simultaneously protect ourselves from being the target of anger or disappointment, by framing things in a positive light where possible.
As our children’s brains develop neural circuitry in the early years of life, we overwhelmingly want those experiences to be stable and positive. Silver linings make for happier memories.
While we might instinctively know the power of framing with our children, adults tend to forget how important the power of framing is in driving our attitudes and behaviours. Unless we’ve built a career in politics, journalism or social psychology, many of us don’t readily question the framing behind the messages that are presented to us by the media. Yet most framing is no more refined or sophisticated than the simple redirection of attention that I used with my son.
Frames are simple by nature. They are mental structures by which we make sense of the world. They are shortcuts delivered via the use of specific language that elicit a certain response. Some frames we respond well to, others we respond negatively to, in accordance with our values, experiences, upbringing, and those foundational neural pathways that were forged in our first few years of life.
Take for example, the framing of COVID-19’s “frontline staff” versus “essential workers”. The former evokes a war analogy, equating the people working in our hospitals, clinics, grocery stores, and aged-care homes with soldiers who are the ones out there fighting against the enemy. It subtly reinforces the idea that aggression and violence — whether physical, psychological, or metaphorical — is the best way to solve a problem. The term “essential workers”, on the other hand, suggests a crucial dependency upon these folks by wider society, evoking feelings of collectivism and interdependence.
Frames are everywhere in our society, and are utilised extensively by all sides of the political spectrum. Consider “refugees” vs “illegal aliens”. “Environmental protection” vs “environmental regulation”. “Free market” vs “unfettered capitalism”. “Welfare state” vs “social safety net”.
Each frame has very different connotations, and yet they are all phrases which are in common enough use that we understand what they mean. Frames gain strength through repetition. The more we hear a certain phrase, the more it becomes our accepted version of reality.
Social science research has consistently shown that when facts or science is provided that challenges our worldview, we don’t change our worldview, we reject the facts. Such is the power of framing.
Which brings us to our current situation that we are living in today, in which many of the narratives that we hold about the world, built through millions of individual instances of applying certain frames, are taking us down a path where social inequality is accelerating, and we are consuming natural ecosystems on this planet as if we had another one to move to. (Note I took care not to mention “natural resources”. That’s a frame in itself, which suggests that the interconnected parts of a complex natural system can be reduced to individual resources, there to be used by humans).
To help redefine the course that we are on, from social support systems and food sovereignty to investing in clean energy and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, we need to be aware of the framing we use.
It’s subtle, and it takes constant awareness of how we communicate. Despite having a value set that upholds collectivism and seeks to avoid war metaphors and othering those who hold different views from me, I’ve found myself using phrases such as “frontline workers” and “the fight against climate change”, without thinking about the war-like frames I am reinforcing through my choice of language. These are the sorts of frames that serve to suggest that COVID-19 or climate change are enemies that we need to throw our arsenal at and overcome through combative means, rather than working together to find constructive solutions that serve people and the planet well.
The first step is awareness. Think about the daily language you choose, and how it either reinforces or negates the kind of world you want to live in. If you want to dive deeper, I’ve listed some further resources on framing below. You can also sign up to my newsletter for advice and strategies to craft frames, narratives and stories that can help shift systems.
With enough practice, perhaps we can start re-framing and thus re-building the kinder, more equitable and regenerative world that our children deserve, with the same level of second nature as diverting catastrophe over a kid’s birthday faux paux.
If you want to dive deeper…
- The Frameworks Institute is a global leader on the issue, with numerous toolkits and worksheets for framing various issues in a progressive light.
- If you’re looking to communicate about coronavirus, New Zealand based organisation The Workshop has a fantastic set of resources to help you frame COVID-19 in a helpful way.
- If you’re interested in upskilling in framing in more general sense, The Workshop also runs introductory workshops to values-based messaging and framing.
- To understand the power of framing in the political realm, George Lakoff’s classic “Don’t Think of an Elephant” is short read that delivers the basics.
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