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.


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