Finding the potential in problems – another site of failure?
by Mary-Denese Holmes
This continues our exploration of sites of failure and how we might deal with the expectations buried in all sorts of daily-lived life.
Today I was reviewing the book “What Do You Do With A Problem?” by Kobi Yamada & Mae Besom 2016, Compedium Inc.
The text is well illustrated and uses colour to move the reader from a sense of worry and bleakness to possibility, the drawings are also lively and suggest constant movement. The text is economical and invites the reader to find the potential in a problem, to find points of agency in the problem situation.
So far so good, but on closer scrutiny the messages implied ‘that all problems contained potential’ in the text had me twitching.
The young protagonist (maybe male) has a problem arrive in his life. He doesn’t want it, and wishes it would go away. However the problem increases in size and broodiness as he tries to ignore it. As time progresses he realizes that ignoring the problem will not make it go away so he decides to gather his courage and face it. Hallelujah. The illustrative colours become bright and optimistic as our little mate discovers there is beauty and possibility for growth and learning inside every problem, so go out and embrace the chances it offers.
So what, I hear you say, what’s wrong with that approach? Well first up:
- I appreciated having the problem separated out from the protagonist, it wasn’t located “in” him
- I appreciated the acknowledgement that facing problems requires courage
- I appreciated the attempt to find a way to invite the protagonist to see if he had any agency in the situation
- I appreciated the suggestion that problems impact on our feelings about our own self and about others
- I appreciated the acknowledgement that problems suck energy from us and can drain the vibrancy from our own life and relationships
- I appreciated how the problem carried the possibility of menace and theft towards things held as precious.
And……. I can hear you say, so what……?????? Well, I twitched at:
- The suggestion that the problem held ‘something beautiful inside’ it. Many of the problems that threaten to overwhelm children’s lives hold nothing beautiful, they hold pain and fear and even horror, they contain no potential
- The suggestion that the problem was an opportunity to be brave, to learn and grow. This sounded like some mindless corporate slogan or a new age call to rainbows and butterflies. If one couldn’t connect with bravery in the face of serious problems, or experience them as sites of “growth” (whatever that means, I don’t perceive people to be trees), as not doing the learning on offer then the invitation is to experience oneself as failing in each of these categories
- The suggestion that failing to grasp the opportunity inside the problem will be to lose this ‘once only opportunity’. So added to the tyranny of the problem the protagonist is invited to hold the idea that if there is anything worthwhile in the situation and he fails to grab it, he will lose it for all time, no second chances if he can’t manage the situation (it also ignores the fact that the child is dealing with the problem without support)
- The suggestion that all problems hold an opportunity if only you look hard enough. This has me thinking of the problems plaguing children I am currently speaking with, and what might happen if I now required of them to look harder for the opportunity in this current situation. The sub text is if you can’t find the opportunity you haven’t looked hard enough, and the failure is all yours. How crippling to add this particular hoop for jumping, in the face of serious, overwhelming situations in which the child has no power to change the events and is often very isolated
- The suggestion that trying hard enough is the key to problem resolution. The invitation to this particular failure focuses on the problem receiver and leaves the problem maker/s invisible and unaccountable. It also disappears the complexities of the problem receiver’s ability to respond given his/her age, position, gender, resources, social capital etc.
Big ideas you might protest for a young person’s picture book. However the book is marketed as relevant ‘for anyone, at any age’ where you can discover ‘something amazing about yourself’. This way of working to find a way past a problem might work if it’s about what colour pants shall I wear today, or will I have weet-bix or muesli for breakfast, or will I follow other people’s ideas about what boots to buy? To exhort someone beset with serious problems to go look for the opportunity that this holds for you is problematic and could reasonably add to the power the problem is already garnering to itself.
Upon reading this text I was left with the question that if books have the capacity to ‘go before us’, to show us a way forward down paths we have not yet trodden, does this book offer life-giving ideas to a child currently trying to deal with serious problems, or does it hold ideas that invite experiences of failure and resignation?
I am wondering what if we could have conversations with a child about:
- What the problem is suggesting to him/her?
- What ‘truth’ about her/him is the problem pushing forward?
- What ‘truth’ about her/himself might the problem be trying to convince the child of?
- What is the impact of the problem on his/her preferred, hoped for life,?
- Who might be available to give a hand with the negotiating of this problem?
- What supports might be most useful in the current situation?
- What would she/he most like us to know about the particular braveries, understandings and attempts to find ways past this problem he/she has already engaged with?
I have looked through a stack of children’s picture books relating to dealing with problems, however I am yet to find one that I would readily hand to a child with a glad heart. Do you know of any picture book that you would recommend ?