Saturday, June 8, 2013

Are You Too Helpful?

A few years ago, I taught an enrichment class, called "Creative Math." There were about 15 boys in the class. Some of them loved math, and some were in the class because their parents made them take it.

This class did not include much arithmetic. It focused on math found in more creative endeavors, like design, music, and art. One activity involved making tangrams... those geometric shapes that can be placed in various patterns to create swans, ships, houses, teapots, dogs, etc. I gave each student a square of heavy construction paper, and then told them step by step, how to fold and cut that sheet of paper into the 7 tangram shapes. They listened carefully, and did a beautiful job of folding and cutting.

When they each had the 7 shapes on the table in front of them, I explained that their new task was to put the shapes back together so that it would look like it did before we began folding and cutting. In other words, put it back into the original square shape. Easy! "Wait... how did we do that?" Hmmm. "Did I lose a piece?" "Is this a trick?" Minutes ticked by, and some of the boys began working in teams. Others, with wrinkled brows, fervently moved this piece and that piece, trying to remember all the steps involved in creating the tangrams. The room hummed with creative thinking.

In the meantime, a dad, who had been watching the whole process, leaned over the shoulders of a team of three boys who were eagerly trying one approach after another. Reaching past them and sliding pieces around he said, "Try putting this piece here, and that piece over there." I suddenly heard a sad, "Oh...." The three boys said, "We got it." But there was no enthusiasm in their voices. I told them that was great work, and they answered dejectedly, "but we had help." I will never forgot the sad looks on the faces of those three boys, now sitting slumped back in their chairs.

Other boys in the room now looked at the solved puzzle and moved their pieces into the same configuration. What had been an excited and involved class, suddenly became a very sullen group. The dad explained, "I just saw them all struggling, and I thought if I could just give them a little hint, it would make it easier."

I have seen this happen in other classes, and even in my own home. Someone is involved in solving a problem, and someone else tries to help, just a bit, but the result is often the same. The interest and intense concentration dissipates like air flowing out of a leaking balloon.

I have often talked to my daughters about the importance of keeping their rooms clean. I have even come up with simple step by step plans that will make the job so much easier. Sometimes, they are willing to try my plan, and other times, they suddenly stop cleaning and get the same look those boys had when the dad helped them solve the tangram puzzle. They were working out their own methods, when I "helped."

I can even think of situations in my own life, when I have been working on something, and suddenly someone comes along, and tries to show me a way that is easier, quicker, better, (you fill in the word) than the way I was doing it, and I suddenly lose all enthusiasm for the task.

I think there are many times in our lives when it is really important to us to find our own solutions to problems. We need to dig for information, on our own. We need to brainstorm, on our own. We need to make mistakes, on our own. When we work hard to find a solution, and we succeed, the elation we feel for that hard-won success will carry us through many more situations in our lives. Because we solved that problem, we know we are capable of solving other problems in the future. It helps us gain confidence. What we learned from solving that one problem, can be applied to future problems. We become better creative and logical thinkers. Our abilities expand exponentially.

Does this mean that you should never offer help? Of course not. There are times when your help and advice will be welcomed. Begin by asking if your help is needed or wanted. If your help is welcomed, don't respond with the entire solution. Just a bit of information may be all that is needed.

If it's a math problem, you may begin by asking your child what they already know about the problem. Sometimes, just the act of explaining the situation, can illuminate the path to the solution. That happens so often for me. I will tell someone about a problem that I am facing, and as I am explaining the problem, the answer or at least the beginning of an answer, becomes clear.

After your child has explained the problem to you, and you have offered a few helpful tips, if they are still confused, you may want to try drawing a picture to illustrate the problem. Or finding a visual aid that will be helpful.

If your child is totally frustrated, you have several options. You can suggest that they take a break and do something else for awhile. Often, when we are working on something challenging, we become so used to seeing it in one certain way, that we can't get our mind to focus on any other way of looking at it. All we see is the brick wall that we can't get past. Taking a break for a few minutes or even a few hours or longer, can be very helpful in enabling us to see things from a new perspective. If the break doesn't help, you can give them the solution, and help them understand how you arrived at the answer.

It does seem to be in our nature to try to help someone who is struggling. We want them to see the answer so that they can move on, but when they haven't invested themselves in discovering that answer, it becomes far less meaningful to them. They haven't seen the pieces fitting together one by one. They haven't experienced that "aha moment" when the way becomes clear. Instead of an excited "YES!" they may instead simply say, "oh."

There will be many times in your life, when your help will be welcomed and appreciated, and there will be many times, when you will be so happy NOT to have helped. As your child shares with you, the excitement of discovery, you will both shout, "YES!"

By the way, if you ever need help... just ask.


"In order to succeed you must fail, so that you know what not to do the next time." ~Anthony J. D'Angelo

"The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery. " ~Mark Van Doren

"Never be afraid to sit awhile and think." ~Lorraine Hansberry, "A Raisin in the Sun"


  1. I love this article so much. My favorite learning experiences have been when I proudly "figured it out" all by myself. My programmer friend and I were just talking about this- when we have something we actually want to create (not just learn for the sake of knowing information) we figure it out fast and furious, and reflect later on what could've been done differently. But ultimately, we learned so much more (and longer-lasting lessons) by doing it ourselves.

    In ten years, the boys who were shown the puzzle might not remember the pattern...but the ones who figured it out on their own will probably always remember- or at least always have the self-confidence to figure it out again!

  2. This is true at every age. Even infants has a strong inborn desire to explore and figure things out for themselves. We unintentionally teach our littlest ones to be passive, not trusting themselves but looking to authority figures, when we constantly disrupt children to show them the "right" way, correct them, and instruct them. Of course this is necessary sometimes, but whenever possible we need to step back and let that discovery process happen. And you explain so beautifully here.

    Sharing on FB!

  3. Yes! I have had to resist -- on numerous occasions -- the urge to shove the puzzle piece into place for my kids. It is so obvious and frustrating for me -- how to complete the puzzle -- that I must look away and occupy myself with my own puzzle pieces. I have had a bit of a rough week, in knowing how much to let go with kids and let them make their own mistakes. Thanks for helping me do this.