Taking a step back

If we accept the idea that, as parents, we need to help our children develop problem-solving skills by allowing them to confront and solve their own problems by taking a step back, we then have to ask ourselves just how far back should we step.  From the parental perspective, we can use the example of physical danger to test our boundaries and later apply this learning to the idea of emotional danger. Interestingly, it does seem that our brains do not distinguish between physical and emotional dangers when we face them, so our bodies reactions are the same regardless. It makes sense that our reactions to a child’s potential danger would also be the same.

How far would you be willing to allow your child to be exposed to potential physical danger? This is an important point as the child’s world revolves around play and it is often dangerous. It is a constant cost/benefit analysis that we are involved in. For example, there have been many broken wrists, legs, arms and necks from tree-climbing accidents. Young children see trees as a challenge. They are curious to see what is ‘up there’. They imagine new worlds, perhaps their own kingdom within the leaves. They are drawn to it. Yet, do you allow your child to climb, and if so, how far and with what support? How valuable do you see the tree climbing experience as and at what point is this value outweighed by the physical danger?

There are no right or wrong answers to these difficult questions, although over the past couple of decades societal attitudes in many countries have drifted more towards fearing risk than valuing experience. It’s like a shifting scale with experience on one side and safety on the other, both being clearly important, but we must lean towards one or the other. Where do we rest? The changing nature of playground equipment is an example of this shift. In Australia, for example, you will not find swings in many primary schools now. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to find a primary school without a set. Not surprisingly, schools have experienced accidents on swings. They presented a risk. That degree of risk used to be acceptable, but now it is not. Now monkey bars are disappearing. It is like the slow extinction of a type of animal that is no longer suited to changing environmental conditions.

Yet risk is a big deal, particularly to a parent. I remember a few years ago sending my younger daughter who was 14 at the time by herself to Australia to stay with my older daughter who was 19, in her university dormitory. There was, of course, no end to the disasters that I could imagine befalling my younger daughter. I had to decide which way I needed to lean, towards experience or towards safety. Thinking back on my own experiences didn’t help. When I was 15, I travelled on a cargo ship in Papua New Guinea for a three-day journey to visit a friend in a town that was years later completely destroyed in a volcanic eruption. When I arrived, I wandered from the port and got myself quite lost as there were no Google Maps in 1984. A group of young men, all carrying machetes, which was not uncommon, followed me for a while and eventually approached trying to entice me into their car. I wasn’t too keen on the offer. The initial polite requests became more insistent and aggressive to the point that I thought they were just about to grab me. I start slowly backed away, but two circled behind blocking my exit. My anxiety levels obviously increased, surrounded by the machete holding strangers. I was just about to drop my bag and flee when a very old man who had been sitting by a tree slowly approached.  A walking stick supported his frail frame, smiling, friendly. They froze. He moved closer and spoke softly to the young men. I’ll never know who he was or what he said, but the young men moved away, cautious, perhaps even a little scared. My elderly saviour took me under his wing. He asked me where I wanted to go and motioned for me to follow. I stayed close and no one bothered me. It seemed that I had accidentally wandered into a place that I probably should have avoided. It could have ended much differently. In life, we sometimes stumble into tricky situations. 

The point of that story is that we can imagine all types of potential disasters happening to our children and the problem is that most of them are quite possible. Perhaps not probable, but possible. I think that the important part of the decision making process is to ensure that we consciously recognize which way we are leaning – towards the experience or towards safety. I want my children to be perfectly safe, yet I have always struggled with the sadness of opportunity lost trying to lean toward opportunity – despite my fears. You can be too safe. Unfortunately, life was not designed to be easy for us as parents and it is a constant struggle. 


Problem Solving and Independence

(Part of a periodic series written for a local parenting magazine in Hiroshima titled Mamampere and published in Japanese. Here is the English version.)

One of the only ways we develop our problem-solving skills is, not surprisingly, by solving our own problems. In many ways, parents control the problem-solving environment of their children. We don’t want to solve all of our problems and modern society has been built on the idea of reliance. For example, the problems associated with food production are taken care of by someone else. Unless we are a farmer, we don’t use our time to plant crops. Someone else deals with that problem. So the question for us as adults in a modern, technologically advanced society is what type of problems do we choose to engage with and what type of problems do we choose for our children to engage with.

Problems are situations with potentially negative consequences that requires some type of action to avert. In this sense, action and consequence are closely linked. The scale of problems is also important and this is where analytical skills are needed. For instance, big problems always contain smaller problems. Understanding how the smaller ones relate to each other and to the bigger whole is part of the problem-solving skill set and the start of the process.

In this sense, we need to understand the nature of the problems as well as a commitment to who is going to take the action to avoid the imagined consequence. If we want to help our children take their place in the world, we need to support them, however at what part of this problem-solving process do we direct our support? I would suggest it is with the analytical stage that the parents should get involved, leaving the action stage to their child.

This can be difficult as we tend to want to jump straight into the action stage for them, without first considering the analytical part of the process. This can be problematic as without first examining the different aspects of the problem we can get a false sense of the simplicity of problems. Furthermore, by diving into action, we can get a false sense of our responsibilities in the problem-solving process. By ‘us’ I mean parent and child. We both come to think problems are simple and we also both come to think the parents are the ones who solve them. That is not the way to prepare a child for a life on their own.

So what is your child’s world like? What does the interplay of action and consequence look like from their perspective?

Parents are the filter through which our children see the world. We have a natural tendency to protect our children from harm. Our brains do not differentiate between physical and emotional dangers. Our body’s reactions are the same. There can be a tendency to protect our children too much and a range of commentators have described shifting trends in parenting over the past twenty years involving the increase in protective behaviours. We can see a shift in various areas of life.

One interesting example is the recent increase of parents on university campuses arguing about grades their adult children are receiving. This is related to the increasing trend of students moving back into their childhood homes after university, still dependent on their parents, not yet empowered enough to fend for themselves. This is new. Unfortunately, a long series of problem-solving based interventions by a parent in their child’s life leads to this point. It starts in the early years. Parents need to spend more time on the analytical part of the process, helping them explore the problem and provide some suggestions for action if needed and stand back. It takes some restraint, this last part, but it helps a child learn that they are able to take action, that they can be in control of their own lives. It is empowering and this is more important than the solving of any single problem.


Critical thinking in translation

Critical thinking is an interesting word when it appears in translation. In English, the connotations are generally positive. It is commonly referred to as one of the key skills needed to prepare children for the 21st century, which seemed like such a long way away, but now happens to be nearly eighteen percent over. For this reason, we are no longer just preparing children for the 21st Century. We are living it. In this sense, it would probably be appropriate to be thinking about the 22nd Century, but getting ready for the hear and now; the 21st. It will be over before we know it.

As part of this preparation for a rapidly changing world, we send our children to school to learn, but learn what? They learn content that is divided roughly into academic disciplines, but as a parent, it is not so much what your child is learning that should interest you, as most of it can be Googled, rather you should be interested in what they can do with that content. How does it help them to come to understand their world?

Above the subject based content, there is a set of skills that are encountered in all subject areas. One of those is critical thinking. Critical thinking skills help to ensure that you are sensitive to the intentions behind the different information that bombards you? In its English form, the term does not have a negative connotation, yet in its Japanese form, the meaning of critical thinking does not translate so smoothly in the educational setting as the idea of looking at something ‘negatively’ comes through relatively strongly in the literal Japanese translation. It seems that this slight problem of translation between the English and Japanese usage of the term is causing mixed-feelings in the Japanese school system where moves are underway to bring a more critical perspective into approaches to teaching and learning. 

Critical thinking, at least as the educational concept, is not about finding something wrong, or inherently bad. We understand that the basis of communication is intention and interpretation. Developing critical thinking skills is about discerning oftentimes subtle intentions in messages that may not be readily apparent. The portrayal of body image in the media is an example of one of these messages. Communication in all its forms is intentional to a degree, but messages are interpreted in many different ways by the audience, so if our children are going to understand their world they need to be able to think critically. As a number of Japanese schools embrace the International Baccalaureate programs, teachers and school administrators may need to revise their understanding of critical thinking and shift their deeply embedded styles of teaching and learning.

Critical thinking skills allow children to discern intent and form more independent ideas. The process does, however, necessitate students challenging the content they are exposed to, questioning the texts they use and the words of their teachers. Of course, more didactic teaching methods and content-driven, memory-based approaches to teaching and learning will not foster critical thinking. The question that confronts us is how far will school systems be willing to bend and shift in order to develop these all-important critical thinking skills? Do we really want our children to be able to question the world? If so, our school systems have some work to do.