On Problem Solving

There was a blog post forwarded to me yesterday by a friend.  It’s by Marshall P. Duke, Candler Professor of Psychology, Emory University; Editor, Journal of Family Life.  The article is entitled “Starting College: A Guide for Parents.”

It’s got some very good advice for first-timers sending their eldest off to college.  But it also had a wonderful pearl of wisdom about problem-solving and letting your students become empowered:

“Waiting patiently for the “college student” to emerge means not doing what seems to come naturally to modern parents. They are problem solvers, they are action-oriented, they are capable. They want their children to succeed in their lives and they want to be sure to help as much as they can. Here’s what I tell them: During the course of normal events at college, your children will face problems that need solving. Roommate problems, social problems, registration problems, problems with specific subjects or professors. There are two ways for these problems to get solved. Way number one: parents call the school and talk to the Office of the Dean, or the Director of Residence Life, or even the President. What happens? The problem gets solved. Oh, but there’s one other thing that happens — their children are weakened. Not only are the children not given the chance to learn how to solve the problem and to grow in self-confidence from doing so, they are also “told” by their parents’ interventions that Mom and Dad do not believe that they can take care of themselves, increasing the likelihood that they will remain dependent on their parents to solve their problems which results in parents continuing to intervene which tells the students they can’t take care of themselves… you get the picture. The bottom line is this: either way the problems get solved. But… if parents solve them, the kids are weakened or prevented from growing. If the kids do it, the problem is still solved but they are stronger and moving toward a readiness to live their lives independently.”

I am a mom myself, and I know how terrible I feel when my young son has a problem and I can so easily see the solution.  I’ve had the advantage of watching my advisees and other students I know struggle with problems, and I see them growing exponentially as they work through it and discover they are capable of handing those problems.  It adds self confidence that you cannot measure.  So as hard as it is sometimes, I step back and let my son struggle with his own solutions.

So when your students call/text/IM you with a problem, try to take a minute and remember Dr. Duke’s advice.  When you get that stressed call, you might be tempted to jump in and help – thinking ‘My son/daughter is too stressed right now to do this on his/her own, and I will be helping if I can handle it.’   Most of the time, those stressed phone calls are your students venting and getting the frustration out of their system (leaving you holding the bag, or stress as it were).

So in those moments, rather than offer the solution yourself or make that call to fix it, instead turn it back to your student and ask some good prompting questions to help him or her get started on thinking about their own solutions:

– What might you do in this situation?

– Who on campus might you talk to about this?

– What are your options?

– Is there a web site for that office/role on campus that might have more information or assistance?

You will be helping your students more than you know.

Categories: campus life


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