The #1 Way To Help Kids Solve Problems

Mar 04, 2024

If I told you there was one thing that you could teach your kids that would help them learn to solve problems every single time they were stuck not knowing what to do, can you imagine what it is? I’m guessing that many of you are going to answer “I don’t know”, and ironically, that is actually the answer!  

This is one concept that I teach and share with anyone who will listen because thinking "I don’t know" completely shuts down your ability to think of ideas, answers, solutions, and possibilities.  If I could take the phrase I don’t know out of the English language I would, but since I can’t, I’m working to teach this concept to as many parents as I can so kids are raised to understand the power of I don’t know, and how to think differently.  Let me explain why.

It starts with understanding our brains better.  We all have something called a Reticular Activating System in our brain, or RAS for short.  Your RAS is your filter that runs in the background and allows you to process what is going on around you.  I don’t know the exact numbers, and they seem to change by source, but we have somewhere around 40 million bits of data that come at us every second —  Every single thing you hear, see, smell, feel, taste.  But your conscious brain can only handle 4,000 bits of data.  

What this means, is that your brain filters OUT most of the data that is coming in — otherwise you would constantly be in information overload. 

The other important thing to know about your brain is that it’s very literal and has no sense of humor.  Your brain does exactly what you tell it based on the thoughts that you think.

What does all of this mean?  When you think "I don’t know", your brain immediately shuts down because you’ve already stated that you don’t know the answer — so it stops working on coming up with any possible solutions, and it filters OUT any solutions so you don’t even see them.

When was the last time that you couldn’t find your phone, looking high and low while you kept repeatedly thinking "I can’t find my phone"?  But then something happened and you got distracted, so you stopped thinking that you couldn’t find your phone.  As soon as you stop thinking I can’t find my phone, you look down and see that the phone is on the table — the exact same table that you walked by five times when searching for it but you didn’t see it.  It’s like it appeared out of thin air, and you could swear that it wasn’t there when you checked.  

That was your RAS in action.  When you were thinking “I can’t find my phone”, your brain said okay, you can’t find your phone and filtered it out so you couldn’t see it.  When you got distracted and stopped thinking that you couldn't find it, your brain stopped filtering out your phone so you could actually see it.

On the flip side, you know when you are trying to remember the name of a person, song, or movie, and you can’t think of it right away?  You follow that up with the thought "I know that it will come to me".  It may be minutes or hours later, but the answer you were looking for will pop up in your mind.  When you tell your brain "I know it will come to me", your brain will keep working on it in the background, sifting through data like a computer, until it comes up with the answer.

Imagine how helpful this would be to your child at school when they are taking a test and come across a challenging question.  Instead of thinking “I don’t know the answer”, they could think “I studied this material and I know that I’m going to be able to come up with the answer”, or at least “I know I can figure this out”. Because our brains are literal, we want to direct them to start working on ideas and coming up with possible solutions.  

So how do you start introducing this concept to your kids?  There are several different things you can do, but the best is just to just turn it back on them with a question when they say “I don’t know”.  You could respond:

  • Can you think of just one possible idea?  Take your time, we’re not in a rush. Or...

  • You may not know right now, but you’ve figured things out before.  What do you think might be a first step to figuring it out?

The ability to solve problems is an extremely valuable tool at every stage in life, and learning this at a young age could literally change everything.  Our brains are the most powerful tool that we have available to us in any single moment — you just have to know how to use it to help you, and not use it against yourself.

This is just one of the tools in my Confident Parenting Toolbox that I share with parents, and I’m going to be talking about how to solve problems and help kids become good problem-solvers all month!  Follow me where I answer questions or sign up to get a weekly email with more tips and strategies. 

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