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  Chapter 18 from
Positive Parenting
Developing your child's potential.

By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski  Ursula Schwartz 


Other Available Chapters
22  27  37 


Problem Solving

Clearly, one of the parental responsibilities is to teach children how to identify and solve problems. There will be no dearth of these in their lives. Problems come in all shapes and sizes, from the most simple to the most complex, from difficulty in opening a jar of pickles to what to do when one loses one’s job.

As mentioned earlier, a phrase that should be avoided is “Let me show you how it’s done,” which, although it may sound perfectly innocent, may be interpreted by a sensitive child as, “You are too stupid to figure this out yourself,” or “I don’t expect you to figure it out.”

Suppose the child is putting all the pieces of a toy back into the box, but can’t get the box to close. Instead of “Let me do it for you,” which is a no-no, or “Let me show you how,” a better statement is “Let’s see if we can figure out what’s wrong here.” After taking out a few pieces you say, “I wonder what would happen if we put these in this way?” and then let the child discover that proper arrangement and stacking will allow the box to close. When he achieves this, the statement “There, you’ve done it!” or even “There, we did it, didn’t we?” will usually elicit a smile of pride.

This approach should serve as a prototype for all problem solving. The Talmud says an impatient person cannot be a teacher (Ethics of the Fathers 2:6), and although doing something for the child may be the fastest way to get it done, it may undermine his self-confidence.

Some children may skip over word problems in arithmetic, having concluded, “I can never figure these out.” I know of one teacher who uses figures of optical illusions to point out that sometimes we may see things in different ways, depending on our perspective. The same picture may appear to be the top of a staircase as well as the underside of a staircase, depending on how you look at it. Then she says, “Sometimes we look at a problem and it appears to be too difficult to figure it out because we are looking at it the wrong way, but if we look at it another way, it becomes quite simple. Let’s see how we can look at this in a different way.”

The basis of cognitive psychology is that many problems are rooted in our “cognition,” i.e., how we see things. A person with paranoid tendencies may see someone leave the room just as he enters, and may conclude, “He is leaving because he saw me coming in. He does not like me,” while the real reason the person left the room was to make a phone call. A person with poor self-esteem may interpret many things as relating to him in a negative manner.

Errors in cognition are common, and parents can serve as models to demonstrate that we are all susceptible to these. The father may say to the mother, “Guess what? I said ‘Good morning’ to Mike today and he just ignored me. I couldn’t figure out why he was angry at me. Then I found out that his son is in the hospital and the doctors aren’t sure what’s wrong with him. Mike was just preoccupied with worry, and wasn’t angry at me at all. Let’s call him up and find out how things are.” Such revelations of “I too misinterpret things” may help a child realize the pitfalls of errors in cognition.

An intense fear of failure can result in anxiety so severe that it may paralyze a child’s problem-solving capacities. A young man was referred to me for psychological evaluation, because although he had been an A student in high school, he was doing very poorly in college. The interview reviewed that he came from a family of coal miners, and that he was the first member of the entire family to complete high school and go onto college. His father was very proud of this, and made no secret of how much he was sacrificing to put his son through college. The young man was made to feel that he was responsible for redeeming the family honor, and although he studied well and knew the material, his mind went totally blank when he took a test. Why? Because the possibility that he might not do well on the tests and thereby disappoint the family caused him so much anxiety that he was unable to recall anything he had learned.

Our children should know that we are proud of their achievements and wish them to succeed, but that failures may occur and are not disastrous. I have often related to my children that although I did well in college, I once received a D in a course on Shakespeare’s Prince Henry IV, and it was as a result of this failing grade that I sought help on how to study literature properly. The Talmud goes so far as to say that a person does not fully understand a halachah until he first makes a mistake in its application (Gittin 43a). The aphorism “Experience is a hard teacher but fools will learn no other way” is wrong. Fools are those who do not learn from experience. It is the wise who learn from their mistakes, and we should help our children realize that whereas failure is something that is unpleasant for the moment, it can be a valuable lesson for the future.

Some problems cannot be solved alone, and require assistance from others. Some children may be reluctant to ask for help, just as some adults may consider it a sign of weakness to ask for assistance, and they try to tackle a task which is clearly beyond one’s own capacities. Unfortunately, such heroic efforts often result in failure. The skill of asking for assistance when appropriate needs to be taught and valued in and of itself.

The Torah tells us in the process of Creation G-d said, “Let Us make man” (Genesis 1:26). Rashi explains that although G-d is Omnipotent and does not need the help of anyone, He nevertheless consulted the heavenly angels, in order to teach us that no matter how great and powerful one may be, one should not hesitate to seek and accept help from others.

Here too, parents may provide valuable teaching by serving as models. When occasions arise where they have to enlist the help of others, they should share this with their children when it is appropriate to do so.

Not all problems lend themselves to solution, and sometimes we must learn how to live with conflict. Inability to live with conflict may result in any variety of escapist techniques such as relocating (geographical cure), denial and self-deception, or recourse to alcohol or drugs. It is understandable that parents may wish to intervene to eliminate conflict from their children’s lives. At times this is necessary, but one must give this serious consideration, perhaps with expert consultation, because reality is fraught with conflicts, and children must learn how to live with conflict. Parents cannot be around forever to extricate their children from conflicts, nor is it their role to protect their children from all and any harm. Wise parents allow their children to be exposed to conflict so that they learn to tolerate stress and get a chance to practice coping and problem solving. We need to “expose” our children to appropriate stressors or problem situations in order for them to become hardy and skilled. The parent who wants or needs his child to be happy all the time is doing the child a disservice and is ultimately gratifying his own needs to view himself as a perfect parent.

 
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