Problem-Solving Timelines




Last week I spent a few days in Cincinnati for work. The night before leaving I tried to find the best words to explain to Teghan why she wouldn’t be seeing me. These days she is pretty good at guessing what we want by the keywords she recognizes, so I stressed the words she understood- like work, “night-night,” and hotel. For a moment she was interested in us going to a hotel right that minute, but otherwise the conversation didn’t seem to have much impact.

The following morning I put myself together as usual and packed my suitcase. When I was ready to leave (coat on and luggage at the door) I presented the scenario again. This isn’t the first time I have left for a few days, so I hoped maybe she would connect the dots. It’s easier to grasp when it is happening now.

And then she did something she has never done before. She broke down sobbing, threw her arms around me, and wouldn’t let go.

Teghan forces us to be very aware of verbal language and how we communicate. In our house communication most often revolves around wants: what she wants, and what we want her to do. As her vocabulary and experience increases, she gets better and better at figuring out our meaning.

For example, last night she found her old tablet and brought it to us. We told her it needed to be charged and that she should plug it in. She found the cord and even managed to get the small end into the tablet, but then she just sat perplexed as she looked at the USB end and the electrical outlet. She was out of ideas.

Like most of our older phones, computers, and tablets, the screen on this particular tablet has a giant crack across it where it has been bitten by an angry little girl. There was a time not so long ago when the tablet would be bitten just for not turning on. In the above timeline of events, that tablet would not even have made it to mom and dad for inquiry.

Then one day she learned to bring it to us before giving up. We would declare it “dead” and a tantrum would ensue. We would plug it in, but this was unacceptable to her. She would not be tethered. Finally, after maybe a year of experience with phones and tablets being charged, she finally understood that it would work while plugged in. I cannot tell you how much this changed our lives and the safety of our iPhones.

Now look at her. She’s trying to plug it in all by herself. It has taken several years to get her this far through the problem-solving timeline without having a meltdown. Years. Now if we could only get her to understand the concept of “Wi-Fi” going out… or to cope when there isn’t an immediate solution.

The trouble with no immediate solution is that she thinks we can fix it; we either won’t do it, or we do not understand what she is asking. It requires a knowledge of “why” when we are still working at a basic trial and error level. But the progress is undeniable.

We have well-meaning family members who think we are failing her by not spanking her when she acts out in frustration. But how can I see her mind process these problems, know her frustration over not understanding “why” concepts, and then physically punish her for what she cannot understand? Should I just give up helping her to understand and instead hope that enough cause and effect pain will make our lives easier?

How many kids are living in that world?

(As a possibly irrelevant side note: I don’t believe spanking is an effective discipline technique that prepares children for the real world of consequences. I mean, if I do the wrong thing at work my boss isn’t going to punch me and then everything goes back to normal. I might lose my job, have no money for the things I want, be forced to give up my car…. things like that. If I break the law I may lose privileges and be removed from society. I am sure we can all think of very effective discipline strategies for our kids that might prepare them for those things. The secret to discipline is consistency, not pain.)

But this isn’t a post about discipline. It’s about problem-solving. For her and for us. Sure, sometimes our kid intentionally does things she should not do. But more often she unintentionally does things she shouldn’t do. And we cannot pretend that doesn’t make a difference. To the outside world it doesn’t, and we have to battle our own instincts on that every day.

For example, she will respond to the word “no” and stop what she is doing. She hears it so much that sometimes when we are out I can actually see her anxiety as she braces herself before every move she makes because she just doesn’t know what she can and cannot do. And she really doesn’t.

Her “socially unacceptable” behaviors may only leave her the freedom to sit quietly, which makes no sense to her. It makes her fearful and hesitant; traits I never intended to build up in my child.

Other times she is so thrilled to identify an absolute “no” that she seeks to do it over and over again. She will get emotionally wound up and do everything she can to push buttons. She will appear out of control. This is when things get broken; like the other night when she broke through her bedroom window.

Raised voices (and I am certain spankings) will get her to this place immediately. It is a reaction to overwhelming emotion. But the more confident she feels about what is happening and what her boundaries are, and the more we trust her to explore her surroundings without intervention, the more behaved she becomes.

I recognize that. I’m not saying I am great at applying the knowledge.

Her expressive verbal language is currently limited to “want… _______” with new vocabulary words being added every day. She may never have a lot to say. But her receptive language is only limited by experience, and that is what will help her most in life. If we continue explaining while doing, even if it takes a million tries… she will get it eventually. 

And if we allow her to try and fail she will also eventually find the right method. Would it be easier to simply ban the tablet after the first bite? Short term, yes. But long term we are setting ourselves up for preventable accidents. An expensive lesson we learn too slow.

We are all the same, aren’t we? The more confident we are with how things work and where we stand, the more content we are in any environment. Confusion makes anyone feel frightened and angry. Social instincts define our differences.

I recently started a new career and everything feels like an unknown. In many ways I am in the same boat as I try to get enough experience to make it through my own problem-solving timelines without screaming. And “why” questions are still the hardest concepts to define.

I haven’t bitten my phone yet or anything…. but I’m not saying it would be unreasonable, either.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.