Wise Parenting, Part 2: What’s the Problem?

Today’s post is the second in a multi-part series on Wise Parenting. Each post focuses on one of six principles for parenting wisely: 1) Stay cool, calm and reflective, 2) Frame the problem appropriately, 3) Aim for the right purpose, 4) Expand the perspective, 5) Apply the best knowledge, and 6) Find the right balance.

Parenting, like much of life, is filled with unexpected challenges. Imagine your 15-year-old son says he no longer believes in God and doesn’t want to go to church or your 16-year-old daughter tells you she is pregnant. These are the difficult kinds of issues that call upon parents to respond wisely. In Part 2 of our series on Wise Parenting we explore the process of framing the problem. The problem to be solved often seems so obvious that we are tempted to skip that step altogether. We simply jump in and try to solve a problem before we really know what it is. But solving the wrong problem isn’t going to do anyone much good.

One of the most important steps in coming up with a wise response is making sure we have identified the problem correctly.  There are a number of factors we need to consider when it comes to framing a problem:

Know whether the problem is a puzzle or a mystery. Some of the issues we face as parents of teens are puzzles. Puzzles, like the daily crossword in the local paper, have definite answers and can usually be solved if we have the right knowledge and commit the time and effort to pursue the solution. For example, your teen is having trouble getting up in the morning for school because he is going to bed too late. Setting an earlier bedtime and helping him learn how to disconnect from his digital devices before bed will likely solve the problem. Even when we struggle with a puzzle, there usually is a correct solution.

In contrast, mysteries are difficult problems that usually lack a perfect solution. Most are not just technical issues requiring practical problem solving but also moral/ethical problems that involve balancing competing goals, values and perspectives. Many of the most difficult challenges of parenting (and life) are mysteries. They have no “right” answer because the answer depends on many other factors, both known and unknown, as well as the values that we hold. Helping your teen choose and prepare for a career is a mystery. It is impossible to identify a career path that will guarantee employment, let alone lifetime enjoyment and happiness. Because problems that are mysteries usually lack a perfect solution, the end result may simply be the best we can do given a difficult and uncertain set of circumstances.

Don’t let emotions define the problem. We often perceive problems based on our initial reaction. For example, your daughter comes home from school and responds to your question of “how was school today?” with a surly remark. Feeling angry about her disrespect and responding with a harsh reprimand would be a pretty normal reaction. However, if we take a moment for reflection, remain calm, listen carefully, and strive to be compassionate, we might consider that the problem could be more about how she is feeling than how she is acting. Perhaps something happened at school today that has upset her. Not jumping to conclusions and patiently considering an issue from multiple perspectives makes it more likely that we will see the problem in the best possible light and come up with a solution that gets to the heart of the matter.

By Tuscany Tunes on Flickr
By Tuscany Tunes on Flickr

Problems are often more complicated than they appear. There are many ways to view a problem, most of which we are blind to. We have a bias that leads us to oversimplify and see problems too narrowly, often in yes or no terms. For example, should or shouldn’t you allow your son to go with friends to a concert on a school night?  Most decisions really aren’t as black or white as they appear. The range of possibilities is usually much more expansive if we just take the time to consider all the options. The issue of whether to let your son go to the concert seems like a simple “yes or no” issue. However, framing the problem wisely, might lead us to consider a range of factors: Who will he be going with? Do we trust him? Do we trust his friends? How late will he be home? Is the concert being held in a safe and convenient place? Is it a rap show or Mozart concert? Does he have other commitments, like schoolwork, that might be affected by his attending? Such questions help us see that the issue isn’t as simple as it might first appear and that a series of considerations should shape how we define the problem. For example, if our biggest concern is about the friends he will be going with, then the problem may really be about trust and responsibility and that is where our attention should be directed.

Problems evolve over time.  Although we may believe we have solved a particular problem at one point in time, many issues need to be revisited. Even when they appear fairly straightforward, problems may change as the situation changes and our teen matures. How we define and respond to routine issues like homework, curfew and dating will change as our children get older. What might not be acceptable at age 10 might become negotiable at age 14 and completely out of our hands when our teen is 18. The nature of problems, just like our children, change with time.

We often try to solve a problem with our teen before we have actually identified what the problem really is. Taking the time to frame the problem correctly can save parents a lot of aggravation and provide teens with the wise support and guidance that they need.


By Steve Small

SteveSteve Small has been a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Extension for 30 years. He and his wife have 3 adult children, two son-in-laws, and a new granddaughter. Steve had a somewhat turbulent adolescence and his
parents couldn’t wait until he grew out of it and left home. In his spare time he likes to bike, hike, build stuff, travel and play softball.