By Bruce R Allen, MSW, LCSW
When my daughter was about 16 she was taking the advanced algebra class in high school. For me, algebra was little more than a traumatic memory and something that stoked a sense of inadequacy that I never wanted to revisit.
One night she called out to me and asked if I would help her with a homework question. I figured, hey, I finished college, I can probably help with most high school homework questions. Then the fear shuddered through me when I saw that the problem she needed help with was algebra homework. I secretly thought Well there goes that Dad on a pedestal deal.
She showed me the problem she was working on and explained were she was stuck. I looked at the symbols on the page, listened to her explanation of the issue and realized that I knew nothing!
I decided to ask her, “So, are there any other problems in your homework that are similar to this one that is stumping you?”
She looked at it, studied the page and replied “The one before is similar.” I asked, “Did you complete the one before it successfully? Did you solve that one successfully?”
“Yes, I’m sure I got that one right!” I then asked her, “So how is the one you are working on different from the similar problem that you got right?”
She looked at the problem again and said, “Ohhh”, now I‘ve got it.”
I stood up to leave the room and said, “You’re welcome.”
She said, “For what? You didn’t do anything.”
This lesson was a powerful one for me. I didn’t need accolades for helping her, but certainly I wanted to feel her appreciation. I realized though that she was 16 and that it was more important for her to see that she had what it took to solve her own problem.
Often when people present us with a problem, we feel that it is now our responsibility to solve it, or at least give good advice. It was much more empowering for her to base her solution on what she already knew, and have me trust that she could figure it out with just a bit of coaching.
Besides, I didn’t have to fail in my attempt at solving an algebra problem.
What if we can do this with our friends and the people we work with? Sometimes finding the right questions to get at what people already know and want is the most potent way to help.