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Sharpen Your Children’s Problem-Solving Skills With This Technique

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Being a company founder requires a broad array of skills. At the end of the day, though, founding is about problem-solving. We lead, communicate, and organize — but all of that funnels into looking at problems and finding creative solutions. This is what many founders feel they were born to do.

Now, think about your children: As a parent and founder, you have the opportunity to pass the skills you’ve learned on to your children and help them develop a problem-solving mindset — a founder’s mindset, if you will.

It’s Never Too Early to Start Solving Problems

Problem-solving isn’t just a basic tenet of your child’s development — it’s crucial to her future. EY suggests that problem-solving and critical-thinking are two of the top skills employers want to see in 2020, and The Financial Times notes that these skills are the most sought-after in MBA graduates.

The first step is often the hardest, though. It’s difficult to correctly identify the problem you must solve, and this rings especially true for younger children. You’ve probably seen this in your kids, too. Is your toddler really that upset about not getting to sit in a certain chair, or does he just need a nap?

In both my work as a founder and a father, I call this concept the PTS — or “problem to solve.” A PTS is different from any old problem. In this case, you likely know firsthand that the problem you’re facing isn’t always the true issue that needs addressing.

As parents, we should help our children look past surface-level problems to find and solve deeper ones. And as founders, we have a lot of practice with this.

Better Problem-Solving Is as Easy as P-T-S

Because problem-solving is a learned skill instead of an innate one, identifying the PTS can be challenging for children.

The famous developmental psychologist Jean Piaget demonstrated that young children think egocentrically, meaning they tend to think only from their own point of view instead of balancing outside perspectives. This is why children tend to start trivial arguments with parents, siblings, and other people around them: The issue at hand is usually related to a larger problem.

I remember one instance with my own son, Blake. We were on a practice hike with his Boy Scouts troop. After a while, he grew exhausted; we gradually fell toward the back of the pack until we stopped completely. Through tears, Blake explained he was intimidated by the hike’s intensity. What he really needed, though, was a minute to remember that this was a practice hike — not a test of his strength or ability. Once he made this simple mental shift, his fear dissolved and his energy renewed. Finding the PTS was all a matter of reframing.

This isn’t just limited to my family, either: One father chronicled a frustrating problem he was experiencing with his children in an article for Harvard Business Review. Every morning, his kids fought relentlessly. After trying to tackle the fighting itself through a number of strategies — anger management, communication lessons, meditation, and even begging — he discovered the root of the fighting. The PTS here was actually that his children weren’t getting to bed on time, so understandably, they were exhausted, cranky, and prone to picking fights each morning.

Children who don’t have these opportunities can become frustrated easily and abandon seemingly sticky situations. The worst part, though, is that they tend to underestimate their ability to overcome challenges — and this extends far beyond childhood.

Unpacking a PTS

The key to helping your children identify a PTS is teaching them the art of whittling down complexity, and this means asking plenty of questions. When their curiosity stops, their momentum slows — and the problem won’t seem any more manageable.

When my kids were young, I found that asking them to apply the five W’s — a classic journalistic technique — helped narrow things down:

Who: Who does this problem affect? Similarly, who will benefit when it’s solved? Ask your children to be specific in naming individuals, groups, or organizations that could be affected. This is an excellent tool to help them see different perspectives and find ways to reframe the problem.

What: Look at the problem at a surface level. What’s the actual issue from your children’s perspective? Conversely, what’s going to happen when the problem is solved? Thinking through and articulating the effects of a problem will help them find a root cause.

When: When is the problem happening? Is it a new problem, or has it been a long-standing issue? Working through this will help your children get a handle on the scope of their PTS. (How grand is the problem they’re dealing with?) This is also a good prompt to get kids thinking about a timeline for a solution: When should the issue be resolved?

Where: Where do they see the problem? Is this a widespread problem, or does it happen only in certain places? This will also help them nail down the scope of the PTS and give them ideas on where to start with solutions.

Why: This one is the most vital. Why is this problem worth exploring and solving? This asks a bigger question than some of the other W’s, so help your children break it down further. What’s going to happen if we don’t solve this problem? What are the positive outcomes of finding a solution? What will the world look like when a solid solution is in place?

Founders know that finding their “why” — the reason for solving a problem — is essential to finding a solution, so push your children here. Ask them why they want to solve the ostensible problem. When they respond, continue to ask them why they gave you that answer. This exploration helps them practice thinking critically about problems and their solutions. Eventually, you’ll likely find the real PTS.

Your goal doesn’t have to be for your children to create the next big Y Combinator startup or secure a spot on the Fortune 500. Thinking like a founder simply means being a top-notch problem solver. We know from experience that great solutions come from clearly defined problems, so it’s our job as parents to help our children develop the gift of problem-solving.

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