Solving problems, fostering hope

From steps to chairs to trees and beyond

“The world is collapsing/around our ears/I turned up the radio…”

– Michael Stipe, R.E.M.

This has been a topic that’s been brewing for a while, and was recently resurfaced when Peggy ( stated the following in a reply to a comment: “…I don’t think “hope” is about the world being saved. I think we should accept that we are out of control as a species. It’s fine. That’s the path nature is taking with us. “Hope” is a bit narrower to me. I have “hope” that each of us as individuals can figure out ways to skirt around all the mess the rest of the world leaves. And there is hope for that, as long as we all keep trying…” (

Many of you may be unaware, but I have a young son. He’s about a year and a half old, as of this writing, and is starry eyed when it comes to the world. He’s in love with movement and the ebb and flow of music and dance and energy inside him. His smiles are incredible and eyes soulful, thoughtful, his mind quick and devious. He is, in essence, the epitome of what I think of when I think of a little boy.

So how does he fit in with this topic? Well, when deciding to have children – planned or unplanned – I believe that we have an obligation to them, and they to us. This obligation doesn’t have anything to do with leaving the world a better place or any kind of bumper sticker platitude riding around on the back of a Nissan Leaf. Instead, it’s an obligation to leave your child as prepared and able to cope with whatever realities they might face in their life. Their obligation to you is to carry on your bloodline, a biological imperative so strong that even same-sex couples – generally unable to have offspring with their partner of choice – will work toward having their own genetic offspring before or in lieu of adoption.

So the topic is in reality a series of questions: What knowledge do you need to pass on to your child or children to ensure that you can fulfill your obligation to them and help them to fulfill their obligation to you? How do you stress the importance of this information to them, and how do you teach it to them? When do you teach them these things, and in what order? Who do you encourage interaction with, and how do you express their talents and foster their skills and activities in such a way that they will be useful to them in the future?

Whoa. That’s a pretty beefy question.

What knowledge do you need to pass on to your child or children to ensure you can fulfill your obligation to them and help them to fulfill their obligation to you?

I kind of think of this in concentric circles (or spheres, really) of knowledge. There’s the mundane everyday stuff (how to light a fire, how to tie a knot, etc.) which are all excellent and good to know, but in some ways are less important than the ‘bigger picture’ items. The most important, in my book, is problem solving.

In “Principles for Teaching Problem Solving”, Jamie Kirkley states “Learners often learn facts and rote procedures with few ties to the context and application of knowledge.” Being able to take learned facts (knowledge) and acquired skills (proficiencies) and synthesize them into an unfamiliar form in order to solve a new remarkable or novel problem is the essence of what I consider to be ‘problem solving’. The training of this synthesis is vitally important to most folks on the planet – however affluent nations and lifestyles seem to minimize the negative feedback loop associated with unsuccessful problem solving endeavors.

The current push on problem solving in education applies more to Mathematics and the Sciences as opposed to daily life, good decision making, or even physical upkeep. But problem solving is at the very least a mammalian trait, and the mastery of such is purely the realm of the human, so it is a wonder that as a species (or at least a civilization) are having issues cultivating and nurturing what is, in essence, our wheelhouse. Problem solving taught humanity how to communicate effectively, control fire, build shelter, hunt and gather more efficiently, work with metals, even build craft that will allow humans to live in places both foreign and inhospitable. Now, people have trouble remembering to look both ways before crossing the street, understanding a budget, or what to do when the grocery store is out of their favorite cookies.

How does one go about teaching problem solving? In my experience, the easiest way to do so is in day to day interactions. This is not a seminar class, but rather an ongoing series of challenges of varying difficulty that the child should be exposed to. This exposure should be regular, and it’s imperative that the child be allowed the latitude to solve it creatively and not be forced down the path you’re familiar with. I personally believe training in problem solving should at the very least be started by the parents, and at a young age. A young child learns vastly more information on a day to day basis than does someone whom has matured. Truly, the first years of life of a human are devoted to learning. What better time to introduce problem solving? What better point for it to become a part of their toolbox – before any education via books and school is really even possible?

In fact, problem solving comes naturally to most children I’ve interacted with. In a life dictated by the ebb and flow of ‘wants’ versus external forces, a child is constantly being forced to make decisions based on what they know, what they think they can do, and the tenacity of those external forces. The ability of the child to synthesize these three things into getting what s/he wants is the basis of problem solving.

Looking at what we’ll call a ‘case study’ (n=1), we’ll take a look at my 19 month old son. We have made a concerted effort to teach him how to solve his own problems as well as fostering independence. This has been a trial at best, because his personality is such that he’s taken the ball and really run with it. Willful, demanding and convinced that ‘he can do it’, he’s always testing the limits – of our patience, his boundaries, and usually gravity. I will refer to him from here on out as ‘fringehead’.

So fringehead is constantly learning, and it’s a wonder to watch him grow, and learn, and puzzle things out. One of several pastimes he enjoys is gaining elevation. I’m not sure if he’s just hoping to get a new and more ‘parent-like’ perspective, or if the air’s just too oppressive down at ‘normal’ height. Regardless the reason, climbing factors into a large percentage of his day. But climbing was, at first a challenge. He knew what he wanted to do, and had to work REALLY hard in order to figure out how to get it done. Of course, we weren’t wild on him learning how to climb on things, so he really got no help from us – other than encouragement when he accomplished something. I mean, when the kid scales two separate pieces of furniture using nothing more than his body, leverage, and determination, you better believe he gets a ‘Good going!’ even if it’s followed by ‘Now never ever do this again!’

To watch him learn how to climb was a marvel in itself – a study in trial and error, frustration and triumph. His first attempts involved just clinging to the back of the chair, his tiny fingers wrapped around the slats but unable to do anything other than hold on. From there, his technique improved: first he added standing on the lower chair run to the hold, then he moved to the side of the chair, where he could both grab the back and get a bit better purchase onto the flat seat of the chair. Finally he figured he could flop his torso onto the seat. He combined this new flop technique with a pull on the chair back, and had some success – but was ultimately unable to capitalize on his excellent positioning. The final piece of the puzzle was to twist his body so he could throw a knee up onto the seat. From there it was a cakewalk – a synthesis of all the movements he had learned earlier, putting them together like pieces in a giant blacksmith puzzle where he was the object needing to be untangled. He looked up and smiled at us triumphantly. He had done it! And then, he did it again, but on a taller chair! Yes, there were additional issues to work out, bu he did not have to begin from scratch, rather he was able to build off of his previously proven algorithm and achieve a solution much more quickly than the original solution.

It was all so natural. No one ever had to teach him about ‘trial and error’ or problem solving algorithms or anything like that. If I tried, he would probably walk off and go play with his tee-ball set. And I can’t blame him, really. Learning specific language for something you do naturally is a fantastic academic exercise, but he really has better things to do. He understands – innately – the problem solving method. He understands repeating and improving on already discovered solutions. He’s off to the races, and isn’t worried about verbiage.

So if children already understand the concept of problem solving – and indeed have to spend the first years of their lives primarily focused on problem solving, why has it become such an issue in schools? Perhaps the methods of teaching are inadequate, or maybe as a child gets older and their problem solving skills are not fostered and challenged, they get dull – a chisel left in the barn for years becomes dull and corroded. It can be reshaped, reformed, and resharpened, but the process can be long and arduous. It is better to already have the problem solving honed and ready in easily applicable, real-world kinds of situations to make it easy for the child to transition into the increasingly abstract. This job falls solely on the shoulders of the parent.

It is the obligation of the parent to teach and foster problem solving in their children – indeed any adult whom interacts with children should endeavor to do the same. Their future depends on it – and yours might, too. It is important that our children be independent and powerful thinkers – especially if the worst ever does occur and we’re left thinking about ‘the good ol’ days’ when we could still get gasoline, or head down to the store and pick up food (I am not saying that this will or even that I expect this to happen – just making a supposition. What the heck does ‘save the world’ mean, anyway? :)).

This is the first of a series where I’ll be looking at more what it means to raise your family ‘paleo’ or ‘primal’ – and I don’t mean in the revisionist, romanticized, or reenactment manner. Technology is not all bad – anyone that tells you such is foolish. The unadulterated worship and orgiastic purchasing of said technology, however… So you have a kid. It’s not going to be easy to navigate the mores of a society so focused on technology as an escape for reality, or hard work, or critical thinking and problem solving will not be easy. And you won’t be perfect – but you don’t need to be. Kids are smart, and they’ll adapt what you teach them and make it their own. As the old saying goes – “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”.


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