There is a lot of talk about teaching children to solve problems on their own. Whole curriculums have been erected by educators determined to train children to “independent thinking” with a host of group games, written exercises, and mind games.
If you walk into any bookstore or browse online you’ll be inundated by workbooks, computer games, and five-minute brain teasers that practically guarantee your child will be at least as competent as Wittengenstein, if not more.
I’m not against any of this, mind you. I’ll be fair, and allow any good man to go ahead and make his buck; after all, this is a capitalist society, is it not? But one thing all of the slick covers and eager beaver salesmen forget to tell you is that the trophy of problem solving is intimately connected with independence.
I don’t want you to confuse independence with the kind of cocky speech so common to child stars and sitcoms, the kind where the child has an answer (usually not a nice one) for everything the parent says.
When I was a kid my parents called that backtalk, and any kid who did that could expect to hear, “Did I ask your opinion?” followed by a swat on the bottom. (let’s not get started on the spank/no spanking debate- one swat on the behind didn’t kill me or any of my siblings-or their friends for that matter-but to each his own).
Independence also doesn’t refer to this generation’s tendency to let children decide what’s best for them, even though their parents may be uncomfortable or downright against those choices.
If you think letting your teenager hang around the mall until late at night, or hang out with friends for long periods of time at your house unsupervised is independence, then this article can’t help you. You’ll have to look elsewhere for the panacea to your problems.
If, however, you can understand that true independence means making some difficult choices that may not be so popular, then you are already well on your way to helping your child survive on their own.
If you also understand that true independence can only occur when you have given your child the structure, the values, the conscience to do what is right so they will be able to exercise their independence in a way that will be helpful to others, then you are most certainly ahead of the crowd.
I have one more surprise for you: The real definition of independence is more than being able to solve problems on your own. The fact is that not all problems can be solved on your own; heck, a good number of problems either can’t be solved or will never be solved in one person’s lifetime.
The best working definition of independence must include the ability to seek out others to help you solve a problem, if necessary, as well as having the coping skills to deal with a problem that has no best solution.
Let’s take for example, the problem of a class bully. Little Timmy, smart as a whip but small for his age, finds himself at the receiving end of Midge and friends, a group of older boys who swagger around the school grounds in search of fresh meat. Until now Timmy has managed to escape their notice; perhaps Team Midge was busy with other prey, or perhaps he simply fell under the radar.
At any rate, now Timmy is the light of their life, and finds himself in a bit of a sticky situation (to put it mildly) about two or three times a day. What should Timmy do? The problem of bullies is one that has existed since Cain and Abel, and Timmy is not about to wave a magic wand and solve all of Midge’s deep-seated feelings of inferiority.
Timmy has several choices, none of which are all that great. He can turn to the powers that be and beg for 24/7 police protection. That might work, at least a little while, but then he risks the wrath of Midge and company, and will possibly be looked upon as a snitch by his friends. He could try the ol’ lunch money trick, but Timmy is not rich, and he has hopes of some day eating more than twice a day.
The truth is that this situation really has no good answer. Any solution that Timmy hits upon is likely to work for only a little while.
The real question then becomes: who can Timmy approach to help him handle this situation? Can he approach Midge’s sworn enemy? Can he look towards an older, stronger neighbor to help? Can he get together a group of other kids Midge has picked on in the past, and maybe wage a secret war?
And how will he handle the effects of being picked on? The lost school books, missed lunches, not to mention concerned parents, will have an influence as well. Timmy must know how to juggle all of the various balls in the air, or face the unpleasant consequences.
All in all, it’s a situation with no easy answers. Timmy’s parents might want to rush in and solve the problem for him, but in reality it’s a problem that is all his own. It is Timmy who must walk the plank each and every day, never knowing how hungry the sharks are that day.
It is Timmy who will have to muster up the courage to try and solve the problem. Timmy’s parents can cheer him on, they can kiss the boo-boos and serve him ice-cream, but ultimately it is Timmy who must face the music. And the sooner they both realize that, the better.