Instead of Fixing, try Collaborating. The Fixer follows an expedient path to short-term good. The Collaborator imagines a time when he won’t be on hand to fix things or a circumstance too complicated to be simply fixed.
The Collaborator—who is also an Explorer by the way—begins with questions designed to find out what the child knows. One of the great things about collaborating is it’s equally valuable in both positive experiences or negative—learning—experiences. Kids can learn to repeat positive experiences and avoid negative ones. The collaboration is virtually the same.
Here are the three Big Questions for the Collaborator:
What? Why? How?
What do you think happened? This is not a technique, it’s a honest inquiry, so don’t get hung up on the wording. What do you think happened? or Tell me about it. or What stands out for you from that experience? are all fine variations on the theme. Whatever words you use you’re inviting your child (or student, or employee) to put a name on her experience. The subject might be a disagreement or a book, a film or a lecture or a close call on the highway. Doesn’t matter. What matters is hearing what the kid thinks she experienced.
Why do you think it happened? Once he’s identified what seems to have happened your kid is ready to assign meaning to the experience. The essential question is Why, out of all the possible outcomes, did this one occur? Why do you think you identified more closely with that character in the book than with the others? The answer to which tells the Collaborator and the child something neither may have known before the question was posed. Why do you think you misunderstood your sister? invites a consideration of why he heard something other than what she said. Why do you think you overestimated the amount of gas in the tank? calls for an assessment of decision-making skills and wishful thinking.
How do you think you could repeat this success (or avoid this failure)? This is the money question. If a child can answer this question, the learning cycle is complete because now she can take purposeful action to repeat success or avoid failure. She may or may not be emotionally prepared to take the action. But whether she does or doesn’t the Collaborator will have a chance to repeat the same process next time, celebrating success or commiserating with failure. In either case, if the kid can answer the What? Why? and How? questions she’s a step closer to intelligent independence.
The beauty of Collaborating is you don’t have to do it forever. Eventually, you can help your child see what you’ve been doing (and how and why you do it). Then in most situations she can take over the process herself.
In more formal learning situations I frequently ask the What? Why? and How? questions this way:
What’s the most significant thing you heard or thought about in this session?
Why do you think that’s so important?
How do you think you might apply that to your life?”
When I teach kids this process I make a guarantee. I say: If you answer these three questions at the end of every class session and reading assignment, you’ll raise your grade by half a point to a point. I’ve made this promise for many years, and I’ve never had to take it back.
You may notice these questions are centered on the kid rather than the adult. There are two reasons for this. First, the Collaborator is asking a question she doesn’t already have the answer to.
Otherwise it would be a trap.
Second, I’ve come to believe that people learn what they can learn—what they’re prepared to learn—rather than what they’re supposed to learn. It would be great if we all learned sequentially, one thing after another until we knew it all. That’s not the case. Complex learning is more like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It’s non-sequential and associative. So when a kid is asked to describe his own perceptions of an event his answers are correct by definition:
This is what I thought was happening.
This is why I thought so.
It may be that his perceptions are inaccurate—he thought the digital clock said 11:10 p.m. when it actually said 1:10 a.m. So of course he was shocked to find out he was two hours late. Is there reason to believe he falsified his story? If not, he needn’t be punished for a misperception. Of course that doesn’t mean he won’t still pay the price of a broken agreement. But that’s a judgment call for his parent.
Whenever we ask, What do you think happened? we get another view of our child’s learning curve. We get to compare where we thought he was on the curve, with where he really seems to be with where he’s supposed to be.
That creates a matrix that’s updated every time we process a significant event, whether positive or negative. And if we can effectively process a negative event it’s likely to become positive. That’s what we call learning from our mistakes.
— from Raising Adults