In Defense of (Temporary) Confusion

  by Erik Wolgemuth

I realized recently that I’ve conveyed a Google-dependence along to my kids. Not intentionally so. Actually, it was often done with good intentions: Which weighs more…our van or an elephant? Or, how long is a narwhal’s tusk? The problem became that we stop thinking and just start waiting for Google to answer. Guessing, problem-solving, and thinking hard ceased.

I probably should’ve come upon that problematic realization, developed a strategy for beginning to counteract it, and then moved to implementation, but that’s not how things unfolded. Instead, I had a bit of an epiphany in the midst of a recent treasure hunt that had the kids stuck.

It’d been awhile since we’d done this activity and given the increase in age and general smarts since our last hunt, I decided it was time to ramp up the difficulty level. So my clues were far more opaque than normal. Some had what seemed to be an obvious answer, which wasn’t in fact correct. Some even had a couple possible correct answers and would require elimination work to arrive at the correct one. The result being, my kids got stuck.

In moments like these, I often spring to provide hints and clues, but perhaps buoyed by a bit more stubbornness than usual (can we call it, dad-grit?), I stayed quiet…and they eventually figured it out. I’ve thought about that day frequently (and we’ve done a few more graduate-level treasure hunts since) and have come to five arguments in defense of (temporary) confusion:

  1. Patience. When advanced clues arrived on the scene, there was minimal patience. I don’t know was a familiar phrase followed by an expectant look in my direction. But we learned (myself included) that it’s okay to not know immediately as long as you don’t give up (see: Grit).
  2. Teamwork. My hunters each take turns receiving a clue (which allows me to adjust clue difficulty for the upper and lower age range) and one of our rules is that help can be given by fellow hunters only when it’s requested. So after some patience and guesswork don’t yet yield the next clue, teammates can then be leaned upon. The kids have learned to talk through ideas and suggestions, and work together…without me falling back on the parental cliche, You need to work together on this. They even begin to develop clues of their own if they don’t want to completely give away something they’ve already figured out.
  3. Grit. We’ve written before about developing grit in your kids and if confusion is to be temporary, it’s going to require some grit. Some not giving up when you feel stuck. Some mistakes followed by a resolve to keep going. (Hey, while we’re at it, I’ll take a dose of that myself.)
  4. Satisfaction of Success. Easy or hard-won success? Coasting to the prize without mistakes or completing a strenuous task with some missteps along the way? There’s no comparison in the satisfaction between the two.
  5. Reference Point. Dad, remember my hardest clue? I had no idea what it was at first! For days post-hunting the kids are still reveling in the hardest clues. Not the (delicious) treasure they eventually found. Not the clue that they figured out right away. The hardest one. It’s a reference point for when every synapse was firing, when they struggled, and when they didn’t give up. And it’s what they remember.

We found that even something as simple as a difficult treasure hunt can start to chip away at that Google-dependence and encourage problem-solving and thinking hard. And the truth is I’ve realized that’s a dependence most prominent in me. So for as important as it is to get the kids back to patient, careful thinking, I’m pretty sure I need that dose of (temporary) confusion myself — and the thinking it encourages — for all those same reasons.


Quite a few of our Favorites involve a bit of (temporary) confusion: wondering where the plot of a book will go, pondering how to best to play a game, or struggling to master a new art skill.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash