By Rajat Soni
Last week my daughter joined a team of students at her school as part of a creativity competition. Her creative team competes against other teams who are all trying to solve the same problem by presenting their best solution in the form of a skit. It requires problem solving, writing a script, designing costumes and other props, and acting. And it requires a coach … me.
If I sound wary, it’s because I am. You see, one of the strictest rules is that parents cannot help the students solve the problem in any way.
This is basically my greatest nightmare.
I have a lot of opinions and I like to do this as quickly as possible. Coaching the team will require me to embrace the exact opposite traits — complete patience, as the children discover their own solutions, and restraint, as the children go down blind alleys and make mistakes. Admittedly, I will probably learn as much as the kids do, and it may be good for me.
Parents today are hardwired to give children the answers. If their child makes a mistake, the parent offers the solution of taking issue with the teacher. As a result, we have turned teacher conferences into a courtroom where the overmatched teacher has to defend him or herself against a cross-examination that questions the minutia of a child’s grades. What is lost in this outweighs any gain. We parents are so busy giving our children the answers to life’s questions that we create no breathing room for them to make mistakes, take the wrong path, generally experiment—and actually learn.
So the children selected the following problem: Create and present a humorous performance depicting problem solving from the perspective of three different animals. The animals will help a stranger, help each other, and solve a problem that threatens the survival of all animals. During the performance, the animals will sing and dance. They will show curiosity, sympathy, frustration and joy.
What followed the prompt was five pages of instructions: do’s, don’ts, requirements, prohibitions — all enumerated with subparts. Oh, boy. I was determined to have the children actually read this entire problem – after all, it was their problem to solve. While this felt relevant to me, it was something like gathering kids around for a fun reading of the local tax regulations. After a certain point, I looked up and more than one child was lying on the ground rolling around, while others were actually hopping from foot to foot, like the dancing children in Charlie Brown movies. The rest were chasing each other around at full speed.
That said, the kids are very excited, with ideas shooting out like water from a broken pipe. It’s eye-opening to spend extended time with 8-year-old children; throughout this process, to combat my strong tendency to offer unsolicited advice or criticize an idea, I asked the group to hold up a hand and tell me to “Stop!” the minute they heard me telling them how to solve the problem. Unlike school, the children were free to silence adults here. All of them relished the opportunity to stop me from speaking.
The process of developing their creative solution to the problem will take many weeks. The kids will make mistakes. They will confront the limitations of the solutions they have come up with. While I will be there to guide them, assist them indirectly, and generally provide them with support, I won’t tell them what to do and I won’t fix any of their mistakes.
These type of competitions are, unsurprisingly, wildly popular with young kids. The children are finally given a chance to take responsibility for teamwork and problem solving. They are the boss. They have to learn to work together and to respect each other. It’s all on them to make it work.
For me, this coaching role will likewise be an education. I’ll have to learn to help the team without making the process all about me. And that is something my wife would tell you she thought to be virtually impossible.