“Parenting or raising a child is an impossible profession. The most impossible profession. Number one, we raise children with the knowledge of the past. It’s already obsolete.”
This observation is made by infant specialist Magda Gerber in her video “Seeing Infants With New Eyes.” Noting the absurdity of raising children for a future that none of us can predict, Magda asks, “And then the question is, if we accept the absurdity, are there certain qualities — human qualities — that will be good for this great unknown future?”
One might not agree with Magda’s view that authenticity, inner-directedness, and what she referred to as a “realistic trust in the world” will always be useful to our children as they navigate the future. But there is one asset we can surely all agree on: problem solving. For as long as the human race exists, we can count on there being new challenges to face and dilemmas to solve. Problem solving abilities will ensure our children survive and thrive, both personally and as part of a community.
The good news: problem solving is yet another competency that our children seem to be born with, so we don’t need to teach this so much as protect and nurture it. Spend enough time observing babies and you’ll notice that they don’t expect life to be a cakewalk. They face physical, cognitive, creative, and social struggles readily when they are trusted to choose challenges for themselves. Practice breeds confidence, and here are the best ways to help children do that.
Be open to the possibilities and provide opportunities from day one
This does not mean expecting an infant to, for instance, self-soothe and then “leaving her to work it out” (a common misinterpretation of Magda Gerber’s approach). Being open to our babies means being attuned and mindfully present — really seeing them as competent individuals. It is noticing when they are working on grasping a toy or finding their thumb and then refraining from following our impulse to “help” when our intervention would defeat their process. The key to gaining a high level of attunement is to practice sensitive observation (explained HERE). We observe and then, when in doubt, follow the magic word “wait.” We give our baby that extra moment he might need to figure out how to move his hand through the armhole of his onesie. When we wait, more is revealed.
We provide the opportunities needed for problem solving practice by slowing down to engage our babies’ participation in daily caregiving tasks and also by offering plenty of unstructured, child-directed play time. Mostly it’s about believing in each child’s unique problem solving interests and abilities, and the earlier we can do that, the better for our child.
As psychologist and author Madeline Levine explains in her New York Times essay “Raising Successful Children,” “The small challenges that start in infancy present the opportunity for “successful failures,” that is, failures your child can live with and grow from. To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life.”
Trust children, rather than imposing our own agendas
Allow children to address the problems that interest them rather than pushing, coaxing, testing, or creating artificial challenges. Here’s an illustration: in my set-up for one of my toddler groups years ago, I had placed some wooden puzzle pieces (the kind with the little knobs) in a bowl on a table next to the puzzle frames to which they belonged. But rather than putting the puzzle back together “correctly,” a two-year-old used the pieces in a manner I’d never have imagined possible. She carefully stacked them, balancing them on their knobs, one on top of the other, until she’d made a fragile tower of four. No more than the four would have held up, and in her experiment she seemed to recognize that. This toddler’s inventiveness and skill building could have been extinguished by an adult directing her to complete the puzzle the “right” way.
Social situations present a plethora of some of the thorniest problems to solve (many of which some of us still wrestle with as adults). Some kids are more interested in socializing then others. It’s an individual process. Siblings provide kids the benefit of a 24-hour learning lab. To help them gain confidence socially, children need our patience, trust, and consistent modeling of positive social behavior. And as with other types of problem solving, social problem solving is hindered by our adult agendas and projections (more on that HERE). When we stay of their way, our children’s solutions will often surprise us. Rachel shared her experience:
“Little win here.
My 4 year old autistic son had been carefully building an elaborate bridge with duplo.
His nearly 2 year old little brother has been feeling a bit out of sorts this morning. He charged in, and when my older son moved away from his creation, the little one stepped in and smashed it.
I held back my natural instincts to intervene.
I used your sportscasting technique (our speechie calls it “reflecting”) and then my older son quickly built up a new structure and invited his brother to smash it. They both giggled as this happened. They rebuilt it together and then smashed it down again. Once my younger son was happy and doing this activity by himself my older son moved to repair his bridge without interference.
Thank you for giving me the tools to allow them to sort this out themselves!”
Don’t invest in outcomes
It’s common for children to begin working on a task or issue and then drop it or shift gears, leaving it “unfinished.” As adults we tend to be more focused on getting to the goal, whereas our children have a process that is far more open and fluid. So a supportive parent can easily find him or herself more invested than the child is in resolving an issue. This occasionally happens with parents in my classes. They remain engaged after their children have moved on and might try to gently steer them back to finishing dressing the doll or opening the jar or giving the toy to the toddler that had politely asked for it a few times (but then also moved on!). I’ve never seen this work, but it does tend to leave parents a little dissatisfied with their kids. And what I’ve learned about kids is that they know it, and that doesn’t breed confidence.
It is challenging but rewarding to release our adult agendas and simply observe as our children practice problem solving. Lisa, shared her experience:
“I watched my 14 month old daughter “put on” one sandal for 35 minutes. She tried it mostly upside down, backwards and always on the wrong foot. She was enjoying trying to put it on – she wasn’t frustrated – and didn’t need me to fix anything. After a while, she looked up at me, put the sandal in her pocket and cracked up laughing. It was so simple and beautiful.”
Intervene as minimally as possible
Magda Gerber recommended beginning with the most minimal intervention and then gradually doing more as needed. Using the example of a child stuck as she’s climbing, here are some step by step guidelines:
1. Remain calm and spot sensitively but as nonchalantly as possible so as not to invite our child to jump to us, etc.
2. Acknowledge our child’s effort and feelings, perhaps with the reminder: “I’m here to keep you safe.”
3. Give verbal direction. “Can you bend this knee (gently touching knee) and reach your other foot down a bit?” Wait to see if she can do this. If not, proceed to #4.
4. “You are having difficulty with this… I’m going to help you bend this knee and reach your leg down to this bar below.” Always be ready to let go and let the child take it from there.
5. Let’s say our child freezes or panics, still upset, which usually means she’s tired or that someone has been taking her down too soon. “This is too difficult for you right now. I hear that. I’m going to pick you up.”
“While doing things for your child unnecessarily or prematurely can reduce motivation and increase dependency, it is the inability to maintain parental boundaries that most damages child development. When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self.” – Madeline Levine, “Raising Successful Children”
Here are some inspiring videos:
First, here’s a toddler struggling to use scissors. His mom Karen shows admirable restraint!
Karen also shared a video of her daughter problem solving:
Karen explains, “At first I didn’t know what she was doing, so I just waited and watched. Then I really wasn’t sure she could get out by herself. Have you ever been in one of those foam pits? They really are hard to get out of. But I tried to not intervene and give her a chance and I was surprised how well she did. That’s my girl!”
RIE educator and child development specialist Lisa Sunbury demonstrates minimal intervention in this video from “Trusting Baby to be a Problem Solver“. She notes, “There’s no mistaking the look of pleasure and pride R. experiences when she figures out what she needs to do, and does it, all on her own, with just a little support from me.”
“Self confidence, problem solving, competence, body and spatial awareness, resilience, trust, and language development. All of these grow and are strengthened through everyday interactions like this one.” – Lisa Sunbury
Thank you to Lisa, Rachel, Amy Jane, Karen, and Lisa Sunbury for sharing your stories and videos!
(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)