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Raising Problem-Solving Kids

Updated on August 20, 2013

Copyright 2013 by B.L. Bierley

*This hub was modified from B.L. Bierley's weekday blog.

Ever have one of those days where everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and you spend the majority of your day trying to make your blood pressure stay within a healthy level? No one? Just me then?
Well, yesterday wasn't entirely that bad for me, but my daughter DaVelma (who does not suffer from hypertension, by the way) had a rotten day for her first day of school. The one shiny spot was that it wasn't until after school let out that her day went downhill.

Murphy's Law of Automotive Maintenance

DaVelma's car died in the parking lot of her school. It was also the first day of her new school year, so it was incredibly unfortunate that the breakdown didn't happen a week prior. She did everything she knew before calling someone because my daughter is nothing if not resourceful. Grease (her father, my ex-husband) couldn't tell her exactly how to fix it over the phone, nor could he help her get the car to start. She worked at it for two and a half hours before finally admitting defeat.

I was proud of her. Yes, sure, it was a problem that couldn't be solved with the resources at hand, but my daughter worked with logic and determination before conceding defeat. In the end, I had to hurry down to pick her up, call a mechanic, and try to get a tow truck in before everything closed.
I felt bad for her because she was near tears by the time I arrived (not out of fear, it was mostly frustration and fatigue because DaVelma isn't usually one to cry about just anything anyway). It was a horrible end to the day for her, but I praised her for using her head and at least trying to fix the problem on her own. I told her that she was very mature. I hope she heard what I said and meant, but it's too soon to tell. She's still in a pretty foul mood about losing her wheels, even though I assured her it's probably only temporary.

The point I would like to make is this ... I was proud of my child for exhausting all possible resources at her disposal before having me step in. I would have stepped in at any time in this scenario, but I was very pleased that my daughter took the initiative to do what she could before determining that she needed help. As a parent that gives me hope that my child will do fine in a few years when she's on her own at college or living as an independent adult. Good Girl, DaVelma! Points for effort!

Anxiety and Other Day-Ruining Problems

My son had a horrible beginning to his first day of middle school, though not nearly as bad as his friend did (more on that in just a minute). Ziggy's day improved measurably as it progressed for him, though. Apparently I may have been over-worrying for him about starting middle school. But my worry was my problem, not Ziggy's. Funny thing is I have kept my worries for him in the most comical secrecy around our house. Ziggy is reluctant to face new things enough as it is, even when I force him. But I would never, EVER do anything to make him think I had less than absolute confidence in his ability to handle the situation. I try not to give in to his panic either, especially when he doubts himself and his ability to do age-appropriate things. And as I look back now I think that I was right to keep my anxiety silent around him. I think.

By the way, why is it that we parents always think we're screwing up when usually we're doing well? I'll tell you why. It's because if you're actually worried about the job you're doing raising your children that usually means you're doing it right. See how crazy that is? It's the ones who never worry about their parenting (or lack thereof) that do their kids a disservice. They usually don't see the danger until it's nearly irreversible. Most of us worry extra about our children, but unfortunately there's not enough surplus in the world to put worry in the proper places when kids fall through the cracks. Sad but true.

As I said earlier, even after a rough beginning Ziggy had a pretty good day. He enjoyed the newness of the experience of being a young middle school man who changes classes and gets to pick what he eats at lunch. But from the beginning the day really didn't bode well for Ziggy's friend, Bart.

The incident that happened to make the morning for Ziggy and Bart so bad happened just after Cap dropped Ziggy at Bart's house for carpool. Bart's mother does not work every day nor does she have an early morning when she does work, so as parent-friends we agreed before school started to do a trade-off. She'd take the boys in the mornings and we (DaVelma or I) would get them in the afternoons. But from the moment Ziggy walked into their house that morning, he knew his poor friend was not taking the change from elementary to middle school well at all.

Ziggy's crowd of friends is not exactly the most mature bunch of individuals. They're cute as the dickens when they're talking too loud on their phones about silly, game-related things like it's the real world sometimes (I often have to remind Ziggy that if something kills his avatar in a game that it is not the end of the world. He knows the games aren't real, but if he loses a man or a life you'd think it was Armageddon! He tells me all the time that I will never understand). That's a gamer's lament-I'm told by wiser game-savvy folks (Cap and his male friends). But anyway, we're getting off topic here.

Of all of Ziggy's friends, Bart is just a little less-mature, even than Ziggy who is still not quite sure what to do with the little girl who tries to talk to him from up the street or with his hair that sticks up like "Alfalfa" from The Little Rascals. Ziggy is also pretty naive, and that's just fine by me. He doesn't need to rush through his pre-teen years. The foreboding adolescent changes are going to drive me to drink, I'm sure.

Anyway, Bart had a full-on panic attack going the morning of their first middle school carpool. Bart was so upset by the prospect of going to middle school that he refused to come downstairs, refused to get dressed, and then after his parents held him down and forcibly dressed him he ran from them and hid in the bathroom to avoid the business altogether.
Now let me preface my rant by saying that I am not being critical of other people's parenting styles. But I had to wonder what had happened to this child in the past to make him so anxious about change.

Bart's parents are extremely outgoing, friendly people. Bart's older sister is also not as uptight about change. She was a beginning freshman that day, and apparently Leighann had no trouble at all with the idea of changing to a new school, even though by personality she is the shyest member of their family. Leighann wasn't having this sort of attack of nerves, so why then was Bart?

Having known them for over a year, I found Bart's behavior surprising. My first instinct was to question if someone or something had happened over the summer to make him be so adamant about not going to middle school. Perhaps it was the result of unknown influences or something traumatic that happened while they were out for the summer. Ziggy and I traveled with Bart and his mother and other boys from his grade on their fifth grade field trip to the US Capitol. We spent five days in close proximity with Bart and the rest of the boys who went along. Ziggy's other friend was also there. Of the three boys in his circle of friends who were on that trip, Bart was the most outgoing and forward.

Bart is also normally very assertive. When he has visited our home, he has no trouble dealing with making his preferences known, though he is reluctant to listen and follow directions sometimes. On the whole, his family is one of the most average, regular families you'd ever meet. So that was why, for me, his complete meltdown about middle school seemed to come out of the blue.

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Problems Will Never Solve Themselves

Bart lost his mind at the idea of going to a new, different school. He acted like a kindergartener rather than a eleven year old. His fear was entirely not age appropriate given the thing he was facing. Especially when you preface it with the fact that our area is pretty tame as far as behavior issues at school. I'm not saying horrible things don't happen anywhere. They do. But in Bart's case, his high-anxiety seemed entirely baseless.

Bart is outgoing, friendly and very, very smart. He's charismatic, albeit a little immature. He also has a bit of a speech impediment, but nothing he couldn't grow out of if he worked on it (unless he becomes one of those guys like the character "Barry Kripke" on Big Bang Theory who uses his intelligence and ingenuity to rise above such petty concerns as speaking ability). As I was saying, we have a pretty decent middle school in this area that handles the transition beautifully by keeping the sixth grade students sequestered amongst themselves until they've had time to adjust for a year. Then they go into traditional middle school population for their seventh and eighth grade years.

Bart's complete meltdown over such a benign event as this seemed to point toward more of a lack of confidence and perhaps a little bit of the "baby-of-the-family" syndrome rather than to any real issue, but I wouldn't presume to know his mind or what really happened except what my son witnessed and relayed to me and what Bart's mom shared with me in the hope of preparing me in case Ziggy was effected by her son's uncharacteristic display.

As mother to Ziggy-who is one of Bart's best friends-I care what happens to both kids as they move up and onward in the world. Mostly though, I was most concerned with Bart's ability to handle conflict and problems that can arise in a given day. I wondered what will happen to this poor kid when he has to live on his own?

Don't get me wrong when I say that I think parents are as often to blame when children have anxiety as when they're confident and self-sufficient. I'm not necessarily blaming Bart's mom and dad either. I think they're doing their best the only way they know how, much as we all are. However, from where I'm sitting in the peanut gallery, I believe his parents have given him a portion of his anxiety at least by not making him more self-reliant. Most specifically, I think Bart's mom has, without meaning to do so, heightened the anxiety in her son by projecting onto him her own anxiety for him and thereby making him dependent upon her rather than letting him work through issues a little at a time on his own. Just saying.

Who am I to judge, you ask? I'm a former teacher who saw many a middle-schooler come through the doors clutching their backpack straps like they were a parachute ripcord and hoping they'd have time to make an escape before the upperclassmen noticed them as they hurried out of the line of fire. Most of them learned to fend for themselves in a matter of days. Some it took a little while longer before they got their sea-legs, so to speak. I'm no expert on children or child psychology, but I am an ample judge of kids' behavior based on decades of practice working with them. I'm also just another mother who, despite her worst and best efforts and judgment somedays, is doing the best she can to make self-reliant, independent people out of her children.

I've had my share of anxiety, too. I know the lung-crushing feeling of a panic attack. But to get through them, you have to rationalize that what is making you panic and feel anxious in and of itself is not usually as dangerous as the panic or the injuries you might sustain if you hyperventilate and pass out and whack your head on the counter. If Bart is actually suffering from debilitating anxiety, rather than just a petulant reluctance to deal with change and the unknown, then my point may be baseless. But in my experience, the things we fear are usually problems we must face and deal with. If Bart can't trust himself to solve a problem, however mighty or mini, then that's the real issue to face.


Parenting: It's Not Rocket Science- It's Much Harder!

Again, I don't want to make out as if I'm criticising anyone's parenting skills. Bart and Leighann's parents are in the same boat many of us are when faced with a tough issue to tackle. We all get our share of criticism in parenting, too. I once had a person tell me that I'm failing to nurture my kids by making them occasionally fend for themselves and make their own dinner at the tender age of ten. But I say it's preparation for life's lessons they'll need in college. I didn't force them to make Coque Au Vin or anything, but they should at least be able to heat up frozen chicken nuggets I keep in the freezer for them if they're hungry. Don't judge me.

Getting back to our young friend's anxiety problem, I noticed a few things over the years since I've known young Bart. Bart is rarely ever made to do things for himself. Bart has his mother wrapped up pretty tightly in doing whatever he wants or needs. He's often not cooperative when she tries to get him to be assertive and do for himself, and he needs only a little whining to make her bend to his will. It's almost like one of those bizarre mind-control machines has taken over this woman to make her treat him like a crown prince instead of a normal, eleven-year-old preteen.

At eleven, Bart is also more difficult to teach as far as habitually ingrained behaviors are concerned. He's reluctant to take criticism from others, peer and adult groups. More desperate to the point, Bart is content to do whatever he wants until his mom reminds him to do something he needs to do, and then she ends up taking away his consequences when she does the thing she reminded him to do in the first place. He didn't solve a problem because for him there never was a problem. He only needed confidence that his mother would swoop in at the end and make sure he did what he needed or wanted to do.

Bart's mother has a difficult pattern to break. But it can be broken. The problem of Bart's becoming independent will never be resolved unless she stands firm against his refusals to cooperate. Now that he is forced away from her safety net and the security of a one-teacher, one-classroom day (which for most children is like an extension of a mother more than just a teacher) Bart has finally realized that he is going to have to buckle down and do things solo without his mother's constant presence. So of course he's terrified.

My point is, if parents constantly solve problems for their child, he will never be able to solve problems on his own when he is eventually required to do it alone. And problems crop up throughout our lifetime. It can be an on-the-job problem like a deadline or a reprimand from a superior; it can be conflict in a friendship or marriage. Problems can also arrive as a difficult topic you forgot to prepare for on a test or presentation, or sometimes problems just happen and we must deal with them.

How will Bart handle issues like traffic making him late for work, or when he has a flat tire on a busy highway, or when his car won't start when it's ten thirty at night and he's the last car in the parking lot. I know some people who as adults still can't handle life and won't make decisions without first asking their parents what they should do. I'm not talking about getting advice, I mean they literally cannot make a decision without their parents' say and approval. Did I mention they're in their forties?!

As parents we must realize something. Despite all our best efforts to solve the problem of death we will not live forever. Why not raise children with problem solving and troubleshooting skills rather than dependent, "you-do-it-for-me,-Mama" people who live in our basements forever because the world is just too scary and mean? We're doing our best to stamp out bullying and form a more compassionate and understanding society, but the world eventually gets us all in the end. Someday bills will have to be paid. Someone will have to cook meals and drive to get the groceries. Someday a boss will disagree with you on the best method or you'll get challenged by someone for ill or petulant reasons in the workplace. These will all happen to us at some point or another. And if we as parents don't give our kids the necessary skills by example and practice in dealing with these issues, who will?

You may think my argument sounds heartless, but I'm not saying throw your eleven year old out of the house with a cell phone and a twenty and tell him good luck. But give the kid a little rope now and then while he's young so that they can figure out the solution based on what he has at his disposal. Be the safety net, not the performer in his circus of life, that way when he eventually has to perform without the security of your net, the problems don't seem as horrific as they might have if he'd walked out on the tightrope on the first day without even a balance pole.


When Problems Become Seemingly Insurmountable the Consequences Can Be Dire

Problems often terrify people when they don't have the practice or experience needed to handle them. What's the most terrifying to me is the people who don't have the courage to tackle a problem head-on (particularly those to whom a problem puts them to the point where anxiety and panic are often the result) often make ill-based decisions out of desperation. Those same people are often the ones who make poor choices that result in even more choices in the end. I think this could be possibly correlated to society's recent drive toward buffering life in such ways that their children are never allowed to fail.

I allow my kids to fail now and then. It's not because I enjoy seeing them defeated, au contraire, mon frere, it's a horrible feeling to see your child not succeed. But it is very, very necessary sometimes. And failure in and of itself should not be such a terrifying event. Many failures in life often teach us more about ourselves. Without failure, there'd be no penicillin. Without failure many of us wouldn't have found the paths we have that have given us the life we now live (and hopefully that which we wanted). For example, without failure, I might be married to a fat, balding alcoholic who owns an unreliable lawn care service and doesn't know the first thing about respecting women (Major crush, love of my life at thirteen. I had an opportunity in high school to go out with him and it ended up as a total failure first date). Do you see the point? Failure teaches lessons. Not always comfortable ones, but important ones.

But in a world where kids don't fail anymore, how are we going to help them understand that it's eventually going to happen to them. Failures happen in life. Mistakes teach you how to do it right the next time. Failure wouldn't be so terrifying to us as a group if we'd been allowed to do it some when we were younger. If we then learned how to overcome the failure to move on and eventually succeed then there would be no need for anxiety over the prospect of failure in the first place.

Here's where it gets pretty dark. I've lost many friends in my life. Some of them I lost because of suicide. Those who left a note usually had a common thread to the despair and sentiments they expressed. Most indicated an inability to see any other way out of their current situation. I believe it's no secret that many people who are inept or incapable of solving their own problems often choose suicide as their idea of a solution. If you think about it, suicide really isn't a solution, even for the person attempting it, so much as an utter refusal to find a better way. That's not me being cruel, that's an observation.

It's a bare fact of life that if an individual has no idea how to solve his or her own problems when he's younger and has a support group of family and friends to help him, it will only get worse. There are not many options available to them as an adult that would act as a teacher or support net when facing adult problems. We all have to face things or deal with consequences. PERIOD. If you can't face going to work, you won't be able to pay your bills. And if you can't pay your bills they take things away from you.

Again, I am not an expert, I'm just saying that how we train our children to handle problems and failures will set a precedent for their future that will always let them have some hope for success.

How to Go Forward When You Don't Know the Way

Teaching kids to solve their own problems is often called tough love. I disagree. There are too many examples in nature that would disagree as well. Look at the Galapagos finches! If they'd waited for their parents to feed them instead of developing better beaks to eat different food sources they might all have starved to death! I know, these birds didn't choose to evolve new beaks, but the point remains. We have to adapt to situations in order to get through to the next level. Kids are extremely adaptive, too. It's the youth that helps them. They're resilient little elastics that remember things and make alterations to avoid the same result again and again.

I must confess to being an anxious mother when I thought of Ziggy going into middle school. My son is smaller than most boys his age. He's all knees and elbows and he's got no social skills despite my every effort to put him out in social situations requiring him to interact. He's awkward and a little underweight. I believe I also worried how Bart's struggle would affect Ziggy as he saw all of the situation go down before he had to face his own demons and insecurities and walk into that middle school, too. Before dealing with his own stress and concern as a student, he had to first consider how his friend was reacting to the situation. He must've seen how ineffective his friends' behavior was in the end. They ended up still making Bart go to school. And for all the drama of the morning, Ziggy had a decently cool first day.

And yet, still I worried how it would make Ziggy feel to have to return today. Cap and I sat him down and had a talk with him about the situation. I told him to keep what happened yesterday at Bart's house to himself. No sense building a bully. Poor Bart will have enough on his plate without rumors circulating that he was inconsolable at the idea of just walking into the middle school. I also told Ziggy that there was no need to make poor Bart's go of things any rougher by sharing his personal struggle with others. Ziggy assured me he knew how awful it was just watching it happen, he sure didn't want to make other people think badly about his friend.

I realized in that moment how proud I was of Ziggy for handling the difficult situation without losing his cool. I guess I did better than I thought in preparing Ziggy for the transition. He made a valiant effort to go into the world, despite the problem of his friend's refusal to cooperate and get into the car. Points for Ziggy for being mature! And for not letting someone else's issues become his own.

I also talked to Bart's mom. As a friend I offered her friendly advice. I told her to find a counselor to help Bart deal with his extreme anxiety over an everyday ordinary transition of life. I also told her that she might consider getting some family counseling to help them all help BArt as he moves out of his babying-years and learns to be a young man. There's no shame at all in asking for help if it's needed, I told her. And I also and told her that we would get Ziggy to school in order to give Bart time to work through his anxiety issues and fear before facing the carpool and his friends until he got his problems resolved. I assured her that I was here if she just needed a friend. That's what we should all do. Maybe then the idea of solving (or being seemingly unable to solve) our problems as adults wouldn't be quite as daunting.

I told Ziggy just to be a friend to Bart and that we would all hope that he gets through his struggle and comes out on the good end. Ziggy said he would be sure and give his friend encouragement, too. I told him that was the best thing he could do. His encouragement was this: "Middle school is way better than elementary. There's no homework, and it's not as boring as sitting in the same room all day!" (Our middle school has a less-is-better policy about homework, by the way! ;-)

Life is hard enough without the added stress we put on ourselves. All we can do is arm ourselves and our children with the tools we hope will help us all get through the broken down parts and the rough patches and come out on the other side in one piece.

B.L.

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