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Imagine you are sitting at a table pushed against the wall. On the table, are a box of thumbtacks, matches, and candle. Your task is to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax won’t drip on the table or the floor. How would you solve this problem?

Did you come up with a solution? It’s so simple that you might hit yourself. Simply remove the tacks from the box, attach the box to the wall using the tacks, and place the lit candle in the tack box.

Functional Fixedness: What Is It?

This is a fascinating logic problem that was originally created by Karl Duncker. It challenges us to think differently about the objects in front of us. We get stuck on possible solutions for this problem because of our tendency for “functional fixedness. Duncker defines that as a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.”

We got stuck tack box’s purpose as a container for the tacks rather than as another possible component of the puzzle’s solution. If we were to take the tacks out of the box, odds are you would have an easier time figuring out the solution to the problem.

Functionally Fixed Parenting

As parents, we often get stuck with the solutions in front of us because we see our tools as only having specific purposes. We try the same thing over and over again with no greater success because we get “functionally stuck,” just like people did with Duncker’s experiment. We’re unable to figure out how to help our kids settle into a morning routine or help them get their homework done in a more efficient manner. Instead, we resort to our usual tools, yelling, cajoling, and sometimes outright bribing them just to keep the family moving forward.

The key is to look for ways to shift our perspective and push back against our tendency for functional fixedness. Looking at things differently is key to innovative parenting. You can’t innovate if you aren’t looking at things differently and willing to take the risks that experimentation requires. Yet, it can be tricky to do that, just as we see with Dunker’s challenge.

Box of tacks - functional fixedness problem

One way to get ourselves to think out of the (tack) box. Try imagining solutions for your parenting challenge from the perspective of others. How would an artist or a UPS driver or a firefighter solve this problem? Encourage yourself to be weird, wacky, and wild.  Otherwise, how would you have thought to take the tacks or of the box?

As you generate ideas, don’t throw any out. Reserve judgment and let them just flow.

A shift in perspective can be an incredibly powerful tool to get us or of the rut of functional fixedness. It’s the antidote to the age-old problem of thinking every problem is a nail when your only tool is a hammer. When we unstick ourselves from our regular list of parenting solutions, we become more innovative (and more successful) parents.