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Problem Solving Skills for Parents: How to Act, Not React to Problems

We tend to get caught in a cycle of response. Altering our thinking can help prevent problems before they start.

We humans have a tendency to get caught in a cycle of response. When problems occur, we see them and respond to them to the best of our abilities instead of trying to figure out ways to prevent issues in the first place. Dan Health, a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE Center and bestselling author, refers to this type of thinking as “downstreaming”. The word derives from an Irving Zola parable about two bystanders who jump into a river to save children who they noticed floating down the river. After attempts to save the numerous children, one of the bystanders eventually swims upstream to try to stop the person who’s throwing the kids in.

In his new book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, Health dives into the idea of proactive thinking, sharing anecdotes about those who have done it successfully: An EMS crew that used data to figure out where 911 calls were coming from the most often and stationed themselves in that area; government employees of Iceland who nearly solved the issue of teenage substance abuse by offering so many interesting opportunities for teens that drinking and doing drugs were hardly even considered. But the book also contains practical advice about how to approach and make actionable changes to small, every day issues in your own life.

“We are so adaptable, as creatures, that it can almost be a curse,” says Heath. The purpose of his book is to help us all think a bit more about how we solve problems both large and small in the first place Fatherly spoke to Heath about ‘problem blindness’ and what parents can do to change their approach to problems.

Are we dealing with problems incorrectly? How does dealing with problems ‘downstream’ hurt in the long run?

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I start Upstream with a parable (adapted from a version by Irving Zola): You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water—a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well. Then another struggling child drifts into sight, and another, and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. “Where are you going?” you demand. Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”

I think that captures the dynamic pretty well. So often in our lives, we get stuck in a cycle of reaction. We’re constantly putting out fires and responding to emergencies. But we’re not getting upstream to address the forces that are causing the problems. And because we fail to do that, we’re dooming ourselves to stay downstream indefinitely. 

Why do we resort to downstreaming problems? In your book, you refer to ‘problem blindness’ as a main cause.

Problem blindness means that we don’t see a problem, even when it surrounds us. Or we may assume that the problem is inevitable. I wrote about a doctor named Marcus Elliott who joined the New England Patriots after the team had been plagued by hamstring injuries. And the attitude at that time was: Look, football is a tough game — injuries are inevitable. That is problem blindness. But Elliott disagreed: He believed that most injuries were preventable with the right training. And he proved it: The Patriots went from 22 hamstring injuries before Elliott to 3 after he put his regimen in place. Sometimes it takes someone like Elliott to come along and wake us up: This problem that you’ve been taking for granted—that you misperceived as “inevitable” — it’s actually solvable.

What other examples struck you? 

In the book, I share the story of how the nation of Iceland, over the last 20 years, has almost eliminated the problem of teenage substance abuse. No joke. They did it deliberately by shifting to an upstream way of thinking: How can we create an environment for teenagers that is so full of interesting opportunities that they don’t have the time or inclination to abuse alcohol or drugs? That’s a classic example of a problem where most people would have said, “Oh, teenagers will always get drunk and take drugs — that’s just the world we live in.” And that turned out to be completely wrong. 

So how can people start to think ‘upstream’?

On an individual level, I’d challenge readers to think about recurring irritants in their lives. Little things that bug you, again and again. I spoke with one guy who had a recurring argument with his wife over the hallway light. He took the dog out frequently, and every time he’d go out, he’d flip on the hallway light, and when he came back, he’d usually forget to turn it off, and that bugged his wife. It was their version of the “you left the toilet seat up again!” argument. So after they’d had this argument countless times, it occurred to him: I can fix this! He goes to the hardware store and gets a light-switch timer, which allows you to press a button and get five minutes of light. Then it shuts itself off. Problem solved.

 Right. That’s so simple. 

We are so adaptable, as creatures, that it can almost be a curse. Like, this guy had basically come to accept and tolerate a reality where there would always be small marital arguments over the hallway light. But with a bit of upstream thinking and a $10 light plate, now he never has to have that argument again. I find stories like this oddly inspirational.

Parents often feel like they are playing a game of response. They are constantly responding to the issues and problems that are in front of them when it comes to their kids. How can the practical solutions in Upstream be wielded by busy parents or individual people? 

In the book I make the case that there are only two areas of life where we think upstream naturally: our kids and our teeth. On the latter, have you considered that our most successful daily health habit, as a species, is not for the benefit of our heart or brain or lungs, but for our teeth? For our kids, of course, we’re always obsessing about long-term consequences: Will a bunch of screen time now hurt them down the road? Is my child “on track” for their age? And so on.

It’s really the day-to-day stuff where the downstream mindset can intrude. What makes it hard to be an Upstream Parent is that, in the moment, it’s always quicker to work around a problem than to solve it for good. Always. Let’s say conceptually that it takes 5 minutes to work around a problem and 20 minutes to fix it. As a result, as harried fathers we’ll choose the workaround. But the trap, of course, is that we end up working around the problem 100 times! And if we’d just stopped once, and invested the extra time, we would have saved ourselves time and frustration.

Right. 

Like, the sheer amount of energy we spend in my family on shoes is breathtaking. The girls resist putting on shoes, they take them off repeatedly for sport, etc. Inevitably we’d all go somewhere in the car, only to discover that one of the girls was missing a shoe, or both, and we’d be in a pickle. We fought that battle 25 times before we realized, hey, we can fix this: Let’s just have two pairs of shoes for the girls that always live in the car. Car Shoes. I highly recommend the idea. 

If it works, it works. 

Ultimately the urge to go upstream is sparked by dissatisfaction: I want to live in a world where I don’t face this problem anymore.