I'm 25 and I babysit my cousin occasionally. I like puzzles (a good deal) and I have since I was a child. My cousin is old enough (6) to know this too.

My older brother sometimes looks after my cousin and will sometimes be stumped by the puzzles my cousin will present him (more like riddles, I guess, like "What gets wetter as it dries" kind of stuff), so my cousin often presents him with new puzzles every week. My brother doesn't seem to mind too much since he can answer most of them. My younger sister is not a fan of puzzles at all (she says they're too conniving, which I can't disagree with) so if he presents her with a puzzle, she actively does not solve it and encourages him to tell her the answer instead of solving it herself.

On the other hand, I've been doing mental gymnastics since I was a kid, and if he hands me any puzzle, I immediately know the answer (he's getting his puzzles from books I used to own). When he was younger, I would only solve the "hardest" puzzles, i.e. if he came at me with a puzzle rated with four stars our of five, I would solve that one, and if he came with one with one or two stars, I would encourage him to tell me the answer. That's how my dad got me into puzzles when I was young.

I do not ever solve puzzles without walking him through the steps (unless he tells me the answer first and the answer is correct). It worked for a while, but he caught on to the ratings really quickly and now he only brings high rated ones.

But I can't get him to do the puzzles himself (or sometimes I can't get him to work on an easier one that would help him learn to solve the hard one). For example, he came to me with a 5 star puzzle that I could water down to a 2.5 star puzzle. I changed the puzzle to be as follows:

Sophie: "Someone ate my cookies! I wanted that for later! Who was it?"

Person A: It wasn't me!

Person B: It wasn't A or D, I saw!

Person C: But I didn't eat it either!

Person D: Person C is telling the truth.

Only one person is lying. Who ate the cookies?

The problem I watered it down from had about ten people (and altogether is really long so there's no point in posting it). This puzzle is something he can absolutely solve on his own, but he won't do it. Instead he complains that I'm not being fun or I'm not helping him. If I solve the puzzle he gets annoyed that I'm not helping him and if I walk him through the steps he complains that I'm not letting him think. If I ask him "What do you think we should do first/next/now?" He says, "You already know the answer, so it doesn't matter."

For the above puzzle, he knows (and has stated) that the key to solving it is that only one person is lying. But if I ask him, "Which person is telling the truth?" He says, "You already know so it doesn't matter." But he doesn't seem to be saying it in a happy way, like it's a joke? He seems upset. He'll happily solve puzzles with my siblings or my parents, even though my dad is more of a puzzle beast than I am.

I really do love my cousin and I'm glad he likes puzzles too, but I can't get him to solve them on his own if I'm around. I think it's because I know most of the puzzles in his books, but even buying him a book that I didn't once own hasn't changed this behavior. I don't want to stop solving puzzles with him, but he seems to just get more and more stubborn about not solving them with me. Is there something I can do to make him feel more comfortable solving puzzles with me? Or should I stop solving puzzles with him altogether?

(I put the answer to the puzzle in a spoiler tag if you're interested in it.)

Only one person is lying. If A is lying, then B is also lying. If D is lying, then C is lying and if C is lying, then D is lying. And if B is lying, there is more than one cookie eater. That means the liar must be Sophie.

  • L-O-V-E the magazine btw...RIP Pluto!
    – Jax
    May 2, 2014 at 21:36
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    Actually, I think B can be lying. "NOT(A OR D)" is untrue if either A OR D is false. So, if person D ate it, person A was telling the truth, person C was telling the truth, and person D was telling the truth (as well as Sophie). But that's beside the point, I suppose :)
    – Joe
    May 2, 2014 at 22:31
  • Actually related to the question, you might consider asking this on Mathematics Educators if you don't get satisfactory answers here. That sounds sort of up their alley, as that sort of logical reasoning is pretty tied into math particularly at that age.
    – Joe
    May 2, 2014 at 22:33
  • @Joe Ahh, you're right! I didn't notice I had done that. @_@ Sometimes it's really hard to make a difficult puzzle into something easier to digest but this time I messed up a bit, it seems. Thanks for catching that! May 5, 2014 at 15:03

2 Answers 2


What I would suggest, from a parenting point of view, is to focus on the process as you have been. It sounds like this is a classic case of rewarding effort versus rewarding success. Your cousin is focused on the goal (getting a solution) but isn't sufficiently satisfied by the process. Assuming your goal is to teach him problem solving skills, continuing to focus on the process is the right way to do it. Maybe you're just in a rough patch and in a few months or a year he'll get over it and figure out whatever magical thing he was missing that is frustrating him.

That said, the assumption that your goal is teaching him problem solving skills may be worth questioning. I don't know your relationship, how often you see each other, etc., but perhaps the right role here is to treat these more like joke books. At that age, that might simply be the more fun way for him to interact with you. Solve the puzzle for him, going through the steps, Don't worry about being Socratic; just show your work, but do the work yourself. Showing him logical reasoning often enough may be sufficient for him to pick it up, particularly if he's doing the easier puzzles himself.

And, to the comment specifically that he only is this way with you - consider whether you're coming across as condescending when you do it. Again, I don't know your relationship, and don't want to comment on that or your personality, but perhaps if you are asking it in this manner he's interpreting that not as teaching but as being condescending, and doesn't react well to it. Kids can pick up on things like that pretty easily, and even if you're trying to teach them in a way that might work well with an older kid, or a younger kid, sometimes the maturation process brings them to a point that a different method is needed. This was a common problem for younger-me, in particular in my 20s, and something that I still have to pay attention to: there's a fine line between helpful teaching and annoying teaching, particularly in kids.

  • I think I might be coming off as condescending. I hadn't thought about it much, but I saw your answer this weekend and decided to take some time and think about it. I usually talk to him like I did with my younger sister when she was that age and needed help, and I think my cousin requires a different approach. I think maybe I'll just treat them like jokebooks until he decides he wants to do something different and leave the teaching aspect to my dad for now. Thanks for your help! May 5, 2014 at 15:16

You have written a complex question (let's say 5 stars). Let me reduce it to 2.5 stars: How do I make playing games with a 6yo fun?

The very fact that I reduce it implies I have an answer and that, in-and-of itself, can sound rather irritating -- if I understand the question so well that I can completely rephrase it, then I demonstrate I know an answer.

And the balloon just deflated.

He likes interacting -- that's why he will solve them with others. What he doesn't like is the lack of reward for his success (when he solves them alone) or feeling like he is a pawn in a game you've already beaten (when solving with you).

So, he has already told you the answer to your question by presenting you with a puzzle -- I'll enjoy puzzles with others, but not with you or me, "can you figure out why?"

Peers. Would you like to play a game of mathematics with Leonard Euler in the room? A game of chess with Garry Kasparov? You get the point. Instead of presenting yourself as the master of the question (directly or indirectly), present yourself as a fellow pawn in the puzzle -- and do it sincerely. When the problem is solved, take credit for his and your contribution... be a puzzle-solving team.

Here's a puzzle for the both of you to begin with: Take your favorite puzzle and make it trickier, the answer the same, and only that one answer to still be true.

You'll find that by adding elements to a puzzle, it is a delicate handling to ensure no other answers are introduced. It's also a different take from going from 5 to 2.5 stars... it's the reverse and, hence, a continuous challenge which I'd suggest you'll both enjoy doing together.

Finally, keep in mind something else: children change interests very rapidly. 6 months ago, One Direction was the one topic around my house... now it's something totally different. Times change, interests change, and people change... as they say, change is the only constant (though the mathematician in me disagrees).

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    +1. To be fair, I'd love to play a game of chess with Kasparov in the room, or even against him. I'd love it for 10 to 15 moves, probably, but still. That's probably not as true for an 8 year old though ;)
    – Joe
    May 5, 2014 at 13:42
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    I hadn't thought that he might feel like a pawn in a game.... I wouldn't want to make him feel that way. I think you're right about being at the same level as he is, though. I'm not sure how well I can make a puzzle trickier than it already is (I still make mistakes making tricky problems easier) but I think that might be something worthwhile to try too. May 5, 2014 at 15:22

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