To be a problem solver, or to let them figure it out for themselves?
One thing I’m really bad at is looking at a problem in someone else’s life, thinking I have the solution, and resisting the urge to offer it to them.
It’s a trait of men apparently so I come by it honestly. In the bestselling book ‘Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus’, Dr John Gray proposes some fundamental differences between the genders that help explain this behaviour. He suggests that men naturally tend to want to solve problems, and that they disengage if they have no solution to offer. Women are more inclined to want to discuss the problem without a solution focus. Male behaviour is also driven by testosterone and it seems that resolving problems and receiving credit for doing so, boosts testosterone which ultimately makes men feel good.
Understanding that there’s science behind it should help me to feel better about this rather than viewing it as a personality flaw in myself, but somehow it doesn’t seem to work that way.
It seems illogical to me that anyone wouldn’t want to solve their problems if they were presented with a solution. Then again, I’m someone who thrives on control, seeks certainty in his own life and has struggled to accept change as part of growth and life in general. Maybe my blinkered view prevents me from being objective?
I often fight the instinct to offer up a solution when someone is sharing a problem. My further challenge is that much of my identity is tied up in offering the lessons from my own life experiences to others in the hope it may help them. It started with a book that shared my experiences of divorce and co-parenting my daughters in the years that followed, and has grown from there. I’m passionate about helping others to share my lessons, to avoid the mistakes I’ve made and to experience some of the highs that I have. This makes it doubly hard not to instinctively offer advice when I have some to share.
Let them make their own mistakes
Sometimes though, you have to let others make their own mistakes; failure is a good path to learning and growth. Some things can’t be taught. Some things have to be experienced.
It doesn’t mean I can’t be there in the aftermath to help others pick up the pieces if I’m able to. What it does require is surrendering my need for control of the situation, of the person, and letting go of the instinct to give them the benefit of my opinion on their current challenge.
This is undoubtedly one of the greatest lessons from being a parent, and continues to be so. I don’t just feel a sense of desire or even obligation to ensure my kids live the happiest, most successful and accomplished life possible; I feel it’s my duty and my purpose. In each scenario that comes up both in day-to-day events, and in their choices and actions that will have a lasting effect, I’m desperate to push them in the right direction.
Time has taught me though, that even with the best of intentions you can’t force the horse to drink even if you surround it with water.
When I’ve expressed consternation over the experimental ear-piercings that marked a phase of self-expression by my eldest daughter, all I could do was implore her to avoid anything that would leave a lasting mark should she decide to remove it. I’ve marvelled and recoiled at enough stretched earlobes and neck tattoos on other kids of a similar age to her. I’ve viewed (and inevitably, judged) them through the eyes of a prospective employer or educator and know that my advice was well-intentioned and coming from the best of places, even if it fell on cynical ears. I’m thankful to say she’s heeded my suggestions to-date.
I’ve offered well-intentioned opinions on the occasional suitor that has passed through her life, giving my perspective on the potential of each as boyfriend-material. Unsurprisingly this has made little difference in whether a relationship flourished or not. My comfort and confidence in sharing my viewpoint comes from knowing that I’ve got her best interests at heart. I’m also proud that to this point I maintain a 100% record of having identified the disagreeable traits that would ultimately end each relationship. I don’t wish for her to be forever-single, ever-sceptical and mistrusting of others but like all fathers I’m protective of her current and future happiness. My greatest wish for all of the kids is that they’ll be cherished and loved in supportive and flourishing relationships.
All future matches have little chance anyway since none will be good enough. That’s just a fact of parenting-life!
My way, or the highway (or another way…)
The same principle has applied in motivating and guiding the kids in times of adversity and stress. I’ve learned that just as in the workplace or on the sports field, each individual finds their motivation from different places when faced with stressful times. Some need incentives and targets to be dangled before them like a prize, to distract from the perceived pain and hardship. Others need cheering-on from the side-lines. Some need external discipline, sanctions or someone to play the bad-guy, forcing them into action. Others still, are best being given the freedom to choose how they will perform the task at hand and to get on with it in their own time. All these need is an occasional reminder of their purpose and a kindly word of encouragement.
There is no one right way. My way is certainly not going to work for everyone else.
Acknowledging and accepting this is not always easy for me. I’m results oriented, driven to achieve my goals and I view problems and distractions as things that need to be solved, overcome and learned-from. When I have a solution or a ‘way that works’ I offer it to others without reservation since if it worked for me, it may work for them too.
I’m gradually learning in life as I have in parenting that one route to success (not the only route, obviously) is to offer up my advice or solution, to share my experience and wisdom and to acknowledge that it may or may not be appealing, or effective for the recipient. It’s given freely, but not forced.
- It doesn’t devalue what I have to offer if they don’t apply it.
- It doesn’t make them stupid if they ignore me.
- It doesn’t help them if they ignore me out of bloody-minded defiance.
- It doesn’t give me bragging rights if they listen to me and I turn out to be right.
What’s important for everyone is that we take on board the kindly words of support, advice and encouragement offered by others, but that we pick and choose which to apply in our lives.
What’s even more important is that we strive to learn, grow and become stronger with each day and each passing experience as we navigate through life. Lessons we learn from our own experience and others that we learn from others are all equally valid and serve to shape us for the future.
If you’ve enjoyed this article, please feel free to join my email list.