I hear my child groaning in defeat. I look up to see that he is trying to fashion the basket he’s been wearing on his head into a hat for his hobby horse. Unfortunately, the horse’s handles, or ears as they appear to be, stick out wider than the basket rim. Its horse head provides no chin to nestle into the basket handle (or chin strap as it were) so the hat keeps falling off to the side and this frustrates him. I offer to help, fashioning the basket to the side, a little like a 1940s tilt hat. Not quite pleased, he makes an adjustment that cleans up the aesthetic and, together, we have solved the problem.
According to Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawly, Dowager Countess of Grantham, “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve; first this one, then the next, and the next, until at last we die.” If survival can be considered the ultimate (albeit distressingly circular) raison d’être for all living things, then problem-solving becomes an obvious and necessary modus operandi. Call the Dowager Countess a pessimist, but it’s a practical perspective. With a growth mentality (I can learn by solving problems!) and a positive attitude (I can enjoy solving problems!), it’s not half-bad as a worldview. Plus, problem-solving is kind of like a human creature power (to borrow terminology from one of my four-year-old’s PBS favorites, Wild Krattz): in our self-conscious self-awareness, we are deeply encoded for problem-solving, and uniquely capable.
As children, we are supported and encouraged in our learning through collaborative efforts with more skilled ‘partners’: teachers, parents, and other role models. For example, my experience with physics was observed and absorbed by my son, who was then able to execute his idea to his satisfaction. In her late 20th century book, Apprenticeship in Thinking, Barbara Rogoff calls these types of exchanges, guided participation, defined as “building bridges between what children know and new information to be learned, structuring and supporting children’s efforts, and transferring to children the responsibility for managing problem-solving.”
Social construct theories earlier in the 20th century emphasized the individual constructing reality; a paradigm that assumed isolation and a generic environment. Both of these assumptions are false because problem-solving is far from solitary: for humans it is an inherently social endeavor; and problem-solving environments are hardly generic: in fact they are very specific in their nature. Rogoff describes the relationship between individuals and society as mutually embedded: individuals participate in a society that in turn offers tools, boundaries, and tactics for disentangling its complications.
For example, the basket-hat problem wouldn’t have materialized for my son without the existence of hats and their relevance to his life; nor without his conceptualization that an upside-down basket might be used as a hat, or that a wooden horse might wear a hat. This is to say, sociocultural activity and individual efforts organize each other, not unlike the proverbial chicken and egg. Specific skills, like reading, don’t develop in a vacuum, either. While we think of learning to read as an individual accomplishment, it must be supported on many levels. Rogoff cites role models; technology; social history; genetic resources; human effort; as well as specific alphabets and other symbolic conventions of the written word as the interactive elements of reading acquisition.
Methods for supporting various aspects of child development across diverse cultures differ because goals for development vary cross-culturally. There are differences in desirable skills, etiquette, mannerisms, and cultural tools such as literacy or narrative style. For example, wearing a child on the back prioritizes an observational vantage point and the physical proximity of children over face-to-face conversation; and placing a child in a crib or playpen favors the privacy and independence of children over inclusion and closeness. Further, censoring words, subjects, and ways of speaking for children, emphasizes separateness as a protective measure; while allowing children to be present for adult activities, to observe and eavesdrop at will, communicates that “adult culture” is not specifically a separate thing. And emphasizing the importance of one-on-one play between parents and their children puts the onus on adults to foster bonding and teaching opportunities; whereas relegating children’s play as an activity exclusive to children promotes a distinct realm of peer to peer learning. These cultural differences ultimately make for different styles of guided participation, but guided participation is a human universality: the nature of human nurture.
Another groan of frustration… “Do you need help zipping up that jacket?” I ask my four-year-old. He has squeezed himself into the royal blue puffy jacket he wore when he was two and is struggling to make the zipper meet. The cuffs are snug on his forearms.
“No!” he whines with conviction, “Police officers can do everything all by themselves!” The small jacket is apparently serving as a police costume.
“Actually, Honey, no one can do everything all by themselves,” I offer.
“That’s true, Bud,” my husband chimes in. In point of fact: this parenting thing? I’m really glad we’re doing it together.
“Actually, lots of jobs, like police officer, mean always working as part of a team.”
“Well…” he falters a little, “Police officers are grownups and grownups can do things by themselves.”
“Some things, that’s true. But it’s still true that no one can do everything by themselves. We all need help and cooperation and teamwork; grownups too.”
By the 1800s the word “maid” in the old English proverb directed at young women, “a maid should be seen and not heard,” had been replaced with “children”, actively distancing and dehumanizing them instead. This characterizes an era in Western history of trying to define children and society as independent from one another. Almost two hundred years later, voices like Rogoff’s began advocating that children are not just accessories to culture but active participants in its creation. Rogoff called the individual adoption of social practices a creative process, and asserted that creativity always—and only—occurs within the context of a history and society of thinkers.
In individualistic cultures such as ours, particularly, there is a need to balance the societal emphasis on autonomy with an understanding of the native interdependence of individuals and their sociocultural context. “You can do it (alone)!” is too easily mistaken for “you are in this alone!” We need to encourage our children to try new things, to ask for help, to share their feelings, to question things, to express their creative ideas, to speak up even when they are uncertain. These are aspects of being an active and effective participant in one’s own culture. Anyone can sail through, for a while anyway, on the path of least resistance: blending in; faking it; not rocking the boat. And a few sail to the top with some luck and good publicity. Yet, we don’t solve problems through avoidance and isolation, or with ego and pretense. Humans don’t learn that way and so goals that are simply relevant to a specific social environment, like “fitting in” or “standing out” thwart our development as individuals and as a society.
The apprenticeship analogy points to the idea that the obvious aspects of a skill do not represent the most useful knowledge gained from a mentor. It is only by working together, over time, that the most subtle and nuanced lessons can be learned by the apprentice, such as how to think like the mentor. It’s one thing to idolize a movie star, to watch her films and imitate her fashion choices; yet admiring stardom does nothing to teach perseverance, work ethic, or how to cope with rejection.
The way we learn to think, both technically and attitudinally, is important. People who frame their reality with phrases such as, “I should have known better,” “This is never going to change,” “If that happens, everything will be ruined,” are said to have a pessimistic explanatory style. Albert Bandura has argued that one reason that all psychological therapies work to some degree for many people is that they all, at least to some extent, increase self-efficacy (a person’s “can-do” attitude). Greater self-efficacy results in stress-reduction and milder stress-reactions. Also, improved self-efficacy reduces perceived helplessness and the depression that often results from it.
Nature and nurture are intertwined aspects of a singular system that provides the framework for human development. Apprenticeship as a model for cognitive development can include a single novice and a single partner/mentor, but also leaves room for peers as resources in a group of novices. As my six-month-old studies the antics of his older brother, his reactions range from curiosity, to glee, to terror. He’s constantly discerning subtle and nuanced lessons, and his brother is his number one partner.
To My Children: Your life is not about how unobjectionable nor how extraordinary you can be, it’s about living as best you can in the context of society, one day at a time, and finding ways to rise to each problem in the series with confidence and optimism. That will take a lot of humility and cooperation, even when you are grownups—maybe especially when you are grownups. As you grow and learn (from one another and others) throughout your lives, I expect you to make the world a better place, in whatever ways you can. This is not a charge to fix a broken thing, but encouragement to nurture and emphasize the best and most beautiful that humanity has to offer. You are born problem-solvers; you will find a way.