How Big is that Problem?

A few days after the snowball meeting, I did a follow-up lesson in Mr. F’s class.  My goal was to introduce a basic structure for kids to use in thinking about the things going around them–largely, yes, because of Peter’s pragmatic challenges, but also partially because I’ve found a good deal of my 10-minutes-twice-a-day has involved navigating the world of the Kindergarten Tattle.    A great deal of outrage is often deployed by one child against another over the smallest of offenses, and I like to have a stock phrase to help kids figure out whether that amount of righteous sweaty indignation is absolutely warranted.

The lesson unfolds thusly.

First, I get all the kids on the rug and let them know that I’m going to read them a story that I enjoyed myself, when I was their age, about a boy who was a lot like me, sometimes, and a boy who was probably a lot like them, too.  This boy, I tell them, is named Alexander, and he’s about to have a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

I read the story, with my usual dramatic voices and facial expressions and stern remonstrances when anybody complains they can’t see (paired with what I’ve found is the most effective remedy for this complaint–randomly approaching the best-sitting child and plopping the pictures in front of her face, then moving through the rug area showing the pictures to everyone else who copies that model–it means I have to be able to read upside while climbing over 5 year olds, and it’s helpful to have a couple sentences memorized first, but the effort is absolutely worth it.)

The best thing about the Alexander book is that it’s totally relatable.  Children’s literature is so full of improbable scenarios–not just talking pigs and real live dragons and bears who watch tv, but also wholly perfect people and conflicts that resolve themselves in eight tidy pages.  Alexander doesn’t go on an amazing adventure; he doesn’t exactly discover a mind-bending truth about himself or humanity. He has, in short, a crap day, and his day is crap in ways that we can all fully understand and relate to.  The shoes he wants are out of stock; there are lima beans for dinner.  In perhaps my favorite litany from the whole book, he explains that

At breakfast Anthony found a Corvette Sting Ray car kit in his breakfast cereal box and Nick found a Junior Undercover Agent Code Ring in his breakfast cereal box but in my breakfast cereal box all I found was breakfast cereal.

Alexander is the Willy Loman of the under-8 set–he is the tragic hero, the Everyman.  His proposed solution, though, is perhaps a bit unusual: if this is what Tuesday feels like in the suburban US, Wednesday’s gonna have to happen in Australia.  He never makes good on his threat to move there–there is, unlike in many children’s books, no wrenching emotional scene where the overwrought little girl packs her bags to run away but oh wait! Mom and Dad love her after all.  Instead, there’s Alexander, griping about sticky hair and ugly pajamas and the absolute uselessness of the number 16, imagining the nuclear option of an expatriate lifestyle but ultimately settling for a bit of a sulk.  And his mother, who doesn’t flood him with reassurances and promises for a perfect tomorrow, but simply informs him that “some days are like that.”  Even, you see, in Australia.

I use Alexander as a springboard for a conversation about the sizes of problems and response.  We spend a little time thinking about all the little bad stuff that happened to Alexander–realizing that it stunk, and that we’ve all been there, too.  I help the kids think a bit about how they’ve, themselves, handled similar disappointments, facilitate little moments where they listen to each other.  And then I ask them about the size of Alexander’s problems–I flip through the pages and check to see if anyone, for example, got badly hurt or lost a Grandma or had anything catch fire.  The problems, we realize, were many.  But none of them were particularly, life-changingly bad.

Then, we talk a tiny bit about, well, moving to Australia–what it would really be like to do that.  I have them imagine needing to pack everything they own–oh no, they can only take half of it!  Wait, the pets can’t come too, because there are different rules in different countries.  Who will get the cat?  I tell them that Australia’s so far away, you have to ride in a plane for at least 16 hours–probably, if you move there, you won’t see your friends again.  New school, new jobs, different house, different people…I don’t mention Vegemite, but I’d like to think the threat is implied.  We decide that moving all the way to Australia is, well, a pretty “big” response.  And that before he decides that this kind of response is warranted, Alexander needs to ask himself, “how big is that problem?”

I have scenario cards available to read to the kids–each time, I have the whole class gesture (ranging from hands close together to both arms spread out wide) to show how big each child thinks the problem is.  After each, I call on a kid or two to explain their thinking, pointing out that we may not all see something as exactly the same size of difficulty, but that we generally agree that some stuff is, well, small stuff.  Some I’ve used:


  • Your pet just died.
  • Your friend gets a turn first.
  • You lose your absolute favorite toy.
  • Your class is one minute late to lunch (initially, this one got amazingly widespread arms: I had to clarify that a minute is short and the food is all still there).
  • Your best friend moves away.
  • Someone hits you hard in the stomach, and you fall and it’s hard to breathe.
  • You want the red pencil, but the purple pencil works too.
  • Someone makes a silly face at you, once.

It’s interesting to me, watching the different kids respond to each of the prompts.  The child who spends most of his time in conflicts with his peers thinks of everything as an arms-out Big Problem; the classroom peacemaker barely separates his hands.  In both cases, I want to follow through–to help my pugilistic friend understand that not everything is worth getting worked up about, to help the other child recognize that it’s okay for him to not like people hurting him.  Peter listens attentively, and his hand gestures are appropriate: the challenge for him is not so much the conceptualizing of problems when he’s calm as it is holding on to those perspectives in the grip of strong emotion.

Fundamentally, that’s the challenge for all of us, though.  Lessons like this don’t, of themselves, solve much of anything.  But the hope is that, when we’re calm, we can build up some resources–take in the nuanced perspectives of others and make our own connections to apply to ourselves. We can develop some words and ideas we can use, have some tools nearby to pick up when we’re angrier.

Even in kindergarten.  Maybe even in Australia.

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2 Responses to How Big is that Problem?

  1. niki says:

    And, just maybe, you could send this to the News Media. Because, sometimes there are BIG PROBLEMS, but even then, we don’t need to analyze every nuance and call in All the Experts who Talk for Hours. Because even Big Problems have their limit.

    I miss the ” Is this a big problem or a little problem” talks.

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