Raising Problem Solvers

With our Lower School intramural program in full swing and Middle School practice starting next week, I find myself thinking a lot about basketball these days. The missive below is similar to one I wrote seven years ago for the Parents Council of Washington blog.

Immediately following graduate school, I taught and coached at Bryn Mawr, an all-girls independent school in Baltimore, MD. During my first year there, I served as the assistant coach for a high school AAU basketball team. The head coach had more than thirty years experience, including many at the collegiate level; he even served on Tubby Smith’s staff at one point in his career. (Among other distinctions, Coach Smith led the Kentucky Wildcats to the men’s NCAA championship in 1998.) This AAU team, comprised of top players from several schools in the area, was assembled as a group of all-stars, and they aspired to win at the state level. At our parent meeting to open the season, the coach delivered a line that I have never forgotten:

“If you want your daughter to be happy all the time, this probably isn’t the right place for her.”

The coach, of course, was referring to the fact that these girls would need to work hard, take on unfamiliar roles, and be unselfish. The parents, who viewed this team as a key step toward playing at the collegiate level, ate it up. At the time, I remember thinking that we should use his line at Bryn Mawr’s Back to School Night – to send a clear message that parent over-involvement and solving kids’ problems did more harm than good in the long run.

A few years later, I had kids of my own, and I began to understand the impulses that I had previously regarded as simply poor parenting. When an infant cries, our instinct is to soothe her. In fact, at this age, we attend to their every need – feeding, burping, wiping, swaddling, rocking to sleep (just ask me about the absurd methods I employed to get Will to go to sleep!). When our children become toddlers, we want them to be happy, not only because we love them unconditionally but also because if they aren’t, they will likely throw a tantrum. And so the foundation of parent intervention is set; parents are only as happy as their least happy child.

While the coach’s message was crass, its content merits careful consideration. True growth and learning stem from life’s disappointments: being cut from a team, failing a test, or, as Wendy Mogel suggests in her book, a skinned knee. Now more than ever, we manage our children’s lives, and our first instinct is to fix their problems. Mogel cautions us not to spoil our children emotionally by “trying to inoculate [them] against the pain of life” (91). Instead, we should teach them that they are both unique and ordinary, and, rather than assuming fragility, we should “prepare them for rough conditions by teaching them to tolerate some stresses and extremes” (113). Doing so will foster their development of resilience and self-reliance.

Have you ever made a second trip to TDS to drop off an item that your son or daughter has left in the car or at home? I have, in a moment of weakness. And perhaps it’s not fair to lump all of these cases together. After all, bringing a Kindergartner her lunch feels different than bringing a sixth grader his Social Studies project. At some point, fixing these mistakes equates to denying our children the experience of explaining to the teacher why they do not have their homework. The benefits of that interaction far outweigh the loss of a few points on an assignment. Put another way, if we want our children to grow up to be good problem solvers, we need to let them encounter some problems on their own.

Doug Norry
Head of School