As every parent knows all too well, parenting doesn’t come with a handbook. We all just do our best to find the line between protecting our kids and letting them learn from their own experiences. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned parents err too far on the side of caution when their children come up against difficulties.
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Rather than encourage their young ones to think through conflicts on their own, they rush to solve the problems for them.
While parental protectiveness comes from a good place, moms and dads who don’t cultivate their kids’ problem-solving skills do them a disservice. As proof, consider the prediction from the World Economic Forum that complex problem-solving will be the No. 1 skill needed in what’s been called the Fourth Industrial revolution (following on the heels of the Third — Digital — Revolution and inclusive of emerging technologies like VR and nanotechnology).
As for what’s happening now, those who can’t problem-solve today as kids will become adults who feel lost in the face of adversity tomorrow. And, as adults, they’ll encounter substantial challenges to finding success in the changing workforce: For one thing, they almost certainly won’t become leaders.
Leaders must be able to cope with problems directly and effectively, and those are skills that need to be learned in childhood. With that in mind, parents who want to set their kids up for success as leaders and innovators must teach them to solve, and welcome, problems from an early age.
Cultivating a founder’s mindset in children
Founders come from all different backgrounds and perspectives, but they share one common trait: They can identify the right problem to solve (PTS). When a crisis flares or failure threatens, most people become emotional and fixate on the wrong things. This holds true in business, marriage, friendships, parenting — you name it. If cooler heads and clearer minds are to prevail, they must be able to cut through the noise to address the heart of the issue.
This matters as kids grow. Confidence is a natural consequence of effective problem-solving. When children fixate on the wrong aspects of a conflict, they become frustrated and discouraged because none of their solutions stick. They second-guess themselves and doubt their abilities to make good judgments in the future. That’s an incredibly damaging mindset, no matter what career path they pursue.
Moreover, the ability to define the PTS is invaluable in many areas of life and is especially key in business leadership. Children who learn to identify the PTS from a young age become capable of thinking clearly, taking targeted action and remaining calm even during moments of duress. As they grow older, they emerge as natural leaders.
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Parents who want to nurture their children’s problem-solving skills can take the following steps to inspire creativity and critical thinking:
1. Introduce children to the scientific method as early as possible.
The scientific method provides a step-by-step approach to problem-solving, from developing a hypothesis, to collecting and testing data, to drawing conclusions from what you’ve learned. My wife and I taught our two kids the scientific method when they were young, and it shaped and informed their thinking as they confronted increasingly complex questions.
Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin agrees this method promotes critical thinking skills in kids. His latest book, Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era, is all about thinking critically and methodically. He notes that, having grown up with the internet and Google at their fingertips, many kids these days are great at finding information, but they’re not as strong at solving the problem of verifying a source’s credibility. The scientific method, he argues, can help teach them the critical thinking skills they may lack.
2. Teach them how to frame their questions.
Instructing your kids to define and pursue the PTS takes time and requires ongoing reinforcement, but that effort pays off handsomely when you find yourself in tough conversations with them. For instance, most kids will eventually ask their parents for an allowance. Some moms and dads acquiesce, while others refuse the request.
A child who hasn’t learned to articulate her reasons for wanting an allowance might throw a tantrum or act out to express her anger at being told “no.” But one who has thought through the problem will be able to have a more enlightening discussion.
Perhaps she’s craving a bit of independence as she enters her teen years, or she feels left out when her friends talk about their allowances. Those issues can spark rich conversations between parents and their children, and they create interesting opportunities for collaborative problem-solving.
When you find yourself in conflict with your children, ask probing questions to discover what’s really going on. One school I read about in Mother Jones took this approach when rethinking how it disciplined kids. Instead of sending them to the principal’s office, it worked to meet their needs — resulting in zero student suspensions for that school year, the article said.
For parents, what seems like an unreasonable request may indicate deeper issues at school or among their kids’ friends. By digging into your children’s requests and finding out their core needs, you’ll be putting your PTS lessons into action.
3. Integrate problem-solving into their daily experiences.
Many parents avoid talking about work with their kids. That’s a shame because children love to hear their parents’ stories. Talking about work is also a great way to impart problem-solving lessons to your kids, particularly if you’re an entrepreneur.
Rather than gloss over a bad day or shield your children from your work, open up to them about the obstacles you face. If they’re very young, you might need to dress up the details with colorful language and animated storytelling, but that’s just an opportunity to stretch your creative muscles.
Kids understand more than we realize, and they’ll be eager to learn about your work and how you deal with problems. What you share with them now will shape how they view their own roadblocks in the future. And that’s a good thing: Children who have healthy relationships with conflict exhibit better social skills and higher self-esteem than peers who are shielded from problems.
My own experience
Ever since my son and daughter were little, I’ve talked to them about my work. Initially, I simply told them about different products I was developing, such as the LeapPad. But once they were old enough to understand, we actively discussed problems and solutions in fund-raising, financing, technology and personnel at the companies I’ve founded. The business world has directly influenced their own career choices. More rewardingly, we’ve bonded during those work-related conversations.
Related: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Explaining Your Job to Your Kids
Every win I’ve enjoyed as an entrepreneur and as a parent has been grounded in my ability to solve problems. Knowing which issues to focus on and which to ignore has helped me hone-in on what’s truly important — and I believe that parents who impart this wisdom to their children set them up for a lifetime of interesting challenges and deeply rewarding successes.