Friday, March 12, 2010


Fifteen years ago I was director of marketing for a large life insurance company. I was in middle management: high enough that I didn't have to step in it, low enough that I didn't have to duck when it flew. There was a lot of pressure on the higher-ups to make the company more profitable, though no one on my level was ever asked what we thought could be done to make that happen.

Every now and then there was a new round of layoffs.  After one particularly large cutback my boss asked me what I thought. I was silent for a moment, then said cheerfully, "Hey, cutting off your leg is one way to lose weight. It's got a few drawbacks, but it's fast... and effective!"

The big lesson I learned at that job was that if you don't define a problem accurately, chances are you'll end up with (as Dancer's math teacher says) an interesting solution to a different problem.

I've noticed that surprisingly few people spend much time figuring out exactly what problem they're targeting. This is one reason why I've been using a problem-solving skills book called What to Do? with Little Guy. He is an adept solver of engineering and science problems, but more than a wee bit rigid with problems that involve personal disappointment or embarrassment.

The book uses cartoons of various situations as a launching point for teaching how to think things through. In one cartoon a girl and a boy stand outside a bakery, and the girl says, "I would really like some cake but I don't have enough money."The boy replies, "Neither do I!" There are trays of goodies in the window, and on one side a sign saying "SALE Day-old doughnuts and cookies".

We moms glance at this and say, "So buy a doughnut already!" But the author realizes that (especially at age six), it's important to untangle feelings and facts before you jump to a solution. Step one is to list the facts of the situation, kind of like I did in the previous paragraph.

When that's done you decide what the problem is. Here's another place parents sometimes mess up: we assume that our kids see the problem the way we do. I have at least one child who might be totally fixated on CAKE, and that child would absolutely define the problem here as a lack of money. Moms like me tend to think the real problem is a bad case of after-school munchies.

If you think this is a money problem, you'll come up with solutions like having the boy and girl pool funds, or sending them home to get more money, or you'll have them rob an old lady, or look for quarters on the ground, or go to the ATM.

If you think the problem is that the kids are hungry, there's a different set of solutions: buy the day-old doughnuts, give up and go home for a snack, or remember half a sandwich left over from lunch. And if I, as a mom, propose a hunger solution to what my child thinks is a money problem, my child is pretty much guaranteed to get upset with me.

The book asks you to think about what might happen under each possible solution before deciding which one you'd use.

I like this approach because it provides practice -- when the kids aren't upset or stressed -- with flexible, logical thinking. Of course, you don't have to buy a book for that. You can do it yourself, if you have the self-discipline. But there are some things I remember to do more consistently if I have props.


  1. Which level are you using with Little Guy? These sound great!

  2. We're using the intermediate level. I have the student book, which is basically a cartoon on one page, and the outline of things to fill in on the other. You could easily use the cards, instead. There's not a whole lot of text, just prompts.