How To Raise a Problem Solver

When my son was about 20, he and his girlfriend moved 300 miles away from home to attend university. I shed a few tears as he drove the moving van out of our driveway, his huge dog Rufus hanging out the passenger window, but I am embarrassed to admit I didn’t spare him many thoughts over the next few days and weeks. I was a teacher, and this was the end of August. He was the second of my children to leave the nest, and he’d spent many weekends driving to the mountains to ski and snowboard, learning life skills I could only guess at. I was busy with my other two children and my students, and I wasn’t particularly worried about him.

Over the next few weeks the kids scouted out cheap motels that would accept dogs, and apartments and houses that would do the same. When they found a house they could afford, John negotiated an exchange: he would build a fence to contain Rufus in exchange for the first month’s rent. They signed up for utilities, opened a bank account, registered for classes. When the heat chased them out of doors – no balcony or patio — they bought a picnic table and umbrella and installed them on the driveway, along with a hibachi and a fan. When it became clear there was very little storage in the house, John built shelves.
I learned all this when I visited them at Thanksgiving. I was impressed, but not surprised. How did my son know how to do all these things? He didn’t. But he was a very good problem solver.

Being a good problem solver can get you a job. Employers have been complaining for years that applicants with excellent academic skills and glowing resumes often have difficulty fitting into corporate life because they don’t know how to recognize workplace challenges and solve them. “Problem solvers wanted” is routinely found in job descriptions. Some bosses have blamed helicopter parents for this missing skill set; others, the hundreds of hours young people spend in passive consumption of social media and videos.

Teaching children to solve problems can begin when they are as young as two or three years of age. Say a toddler is trying to fit that last piece into a puzzle, and it’s an asymmetrical circular flower. Even experienced puzzlers would find that challenging. It’s tempting for an adult to spin the piece around to the right orientation. A better approach, however, is to reassure the child that they can solve this problem themselves. Identify the challenge – all the petals seem to look the same. Turning it around hasn’t so far achieved the goal. The child may look to you for help. Instead of responding with a solution, ask a question. What can we do to get this piece into place? Was the original strategy the right one? What happens if you turn it around one petal at a time? Aha! It goes into place. Look at the child’s face – if you had fixed the problem, you would never have seen the satisfaction that comes with solving a problem.

A Montessori teacher once said to me, quoting Dr. Montessori herself: “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” When you do something for a child that he can do himself, she explained, you have stolen from him the exhilaration and joy that comes from being successful at a task. When children are allowed to do things for themselves, it increases their self-belief, self-confidence and self-esteem. This will carry on throughout their lives. And what if they fail? They learn to try other strategies, look for resources or tools to help, and that failure isn’t a permanent condition.

How can we give children space to develop problem-solving skills? Parents can include children in household tasks, sorting laundry, putting silverware in the dishwasher, feeding the dog. They can provide them with “moveable parts” and encouraged to explore, sort, combine, build. One mother I know puts all her discarded cardboard containers into a large box in the garage. Egg cartons, frozen waffles boxe, toilet paper and paper towel rolls can be transformed into cities, forts, or pieces of art. Her seven-year-old daughter spends hours with scissors, tape, and glue sticks, constructing amazing structures. In the same way an older child will learn immeasurable lessons about physics when given a collection of nuts, bolts, screws, washers, nails, and wood, then taught how to use a hammer and handsaw safely, then let loose to explore.

Afterschool and summer recreational programs are ideally suited for this kind of open-ended learning. One summer I ran a school age child care program in my community, and the children wanted to build a life-sized dinosaur like they had seen at the local natural history museum. I let the youngsters who had the idea think about how they would accomplish this. After the first brainstorming session they requested chicken wire, muslin, pantyhose, newspapers, and papier mache mix. A field trip to a lumber yard and a letter home to parents (which they wrote) resulted in a huge pile of material and tools. After a more targeted planning session they added specific tools to their wish list – wire cutters, scissors, putty knives. Some parents donated frozen food containers to hold papier mache glue and paint. At one point the children realized they needed to keep the papier mache wet until they finished that part of the structure, so we drove back to the lumber yard to get sheets of plastic.

I could have provided the children with a list of supplies they would need, but just think of the learning that took place during the two weeks of planning they did before they could even begin construction – much as in early education, the process was more important than the product. Although the eight-foot-high dinosaur they crafted was pretty nice, too.

The Cisco Networking Academy, which offers certification-aligned courses in topics like cybersecurity, networking, and computer languages, teaches six steps to becoming a better problem solver: “Whether you want to fix a bug in your network, hit a deadline, secure that promotion or start your own company – However big or small, we all set objectives and goals for ourselves that require us to solve problems.

Six Steps to Becoming a Better Problem Solver

Step 1

Identify the problem. This can be as simple as recognizing that a puzzle piece is asymmetrical, or as complex as building a dinosaur.

Step 2

Determine the root causes of the problem. Cisco suggests that this step includes collecting information, analyzing your findings, and refining your diagnosis. Put the rest of the puzzle together and try to understand why the flower piece is more difficult to put in place than the other ones. Research different kinds of dinosaurs and determine which one would be the most structurally sound.

Step 3

Find multiple solutions. Think innovatively. Think outside the box. Turn the puzzle piece clockwise one petal at a time, or counterclockwise one petal at a time. Try turning the puzzle piece face down – I can predict that won’t work, but it’s always worth a try. If you’re building a dinosaur, experiment with several different materials.

Step 4

Find the solution that will work best. Most real-life problems have more than one solution. Possibly not a toddler’s puzzle, but this does apply to building a dinosaur.

Step 5

Plan and implement your solution. Build a plan to execute your solution. In the case of a long-range project, think in terms of who, what, when, and how you will implement the plan.

Step 6

Measure the success of your solution. In many cases, we forget to do this step, we’re so happy just to get to the end of the project. Here are the questions Cisco suggests asking: How does it measure against your goals, have you met your objectives, have you stayed within budget? Is the work complete? Can you see a measurable outcome? Would you do anything differently if you did it again? (I added that one).

Children six years old and older can be taught these steps. In fact, they can be led, through creative questioning, to develop a customized version of the six steps in their own words, and that make sense to them.

I took my six-year-old granddaughter to the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History last week. She loved the nature lab and we spent over an hour there. While she was on her hands and knees studying tiny dioramas containing spiders and their unique webs, I happened to notice two girls about the same age approaching an interactive magnification exhibit.

The first child’s mother lifted her daughter onto the stool, took a cube of acrylic from a basket, placed it under the microscope lens, and focused it, revealing an insect on the large screen in front of her.

The second child’s mother asked her if she’d like to learn how to use a microscope. She patiently watched as her daughter scrambled onto the stool, selected an insect cube, and put it under the microscope lens. She turned the focus wheel one way, and the image got fuzzy. Without a word from her mother, who was watching her closely, she turned it the other way, then back again, until she stumbled on the right direction and amount to turn the wheel. She then chose another insect cube, and studied it, then a third, and a fourth. Finally, she put the first one under the lens again and announced “I like this one best.” The first child? After seeing one insect on the screen she was done – off the stool, being led to the spider exhibit by her mother, then on to the next exhibit, and the next.
Solving problems is fun, and results in better engagement with life, as well as the satisfaction that comes from figuring something out. Intuitively, the second child’s mother knew that, and had the patience to let her daughter solve her own problems. I would like to think that whether we are raising our own children or caring for other people’s, we develop that patience, and give them the freedom to problem solve.

For 40 years, Dr. Marlene Bumgarner (she/her/hers) taught child and adolescent development in community colleges and four-year institutions. For many years she was a member of the National Association for Afterschool (NAA) and the California School Age Consortium (CSAC), where she sat on the governing board.  She is the author of Working with SchoolAge Children, a textbook published by Pearson. Learn more about her at