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Teaching children how to solve their own problems

December, 2011

In order to raise self-sufficient children who can solve their own problems, we want to guide our children to do two things: take responsibility for their own problems and cooperate with others to solve them. Perhaps because we were not allowed to be responsible for solving our problems when we were growing up or perhaps because we want to control what our child does, we fail to recognize that our child can solve his/her problems, and then to teach and encourage them to do so. It will be easier for them to learn this skill if you and they can work together on it.

When your child confronts you with a problem, the first thing to do is decide who owns it – you or the child. To do this ask yourself four questions:

  1. Are my rights being disrespected?
  2. Could anybody get hurt?
  3. Is someone’s property being threatened?
  4. Is my child unable to take this responsibility?

If the answer to any of the above questions is “yes,” then you own the problem. Otherwise, the child owns the problem which means it is not yours to solve. Of course, you can and should help the child learn how to solve their own problems, and they should cooperate in solving the problems you own together. You accomplish this by taking time to listen, to talk, and to agree about a way to solve the problem at hand.

Knowing the five steps for exploring alternatives to a problem can greatly help when you go to talk it through with your child. First,  be sure you understand what the problem is. You do this by making sure the problem and people’s feelings are clear to both you and your child. It is helpful to ask questions to be sure you understand what is being said, and to listen reflectively. When you believe you understand, state the problem clearly and respectfully, making sure both parties agree upon the definition of the problem. 

Secondly,  brainstorm ways to solve the problem. Ask your child about ways to solve it, suggesting your ideas, too. You can help by saying, “What would happen if…..”  Remember, these ideas are only alternatives, so stay open minded, even if some ideas are silly or less than helpful. List all ideas, and don’t be quick to judge.

Next, consider each idea. Read the list, and discuss the alternatives you came up with together. Both you and your child should feel free to “try on” the various ideas. If you don’t agree with an idea, state your opinion respectfully. Don’t say, “I’m sure that idea won’t work!” Instead, say something like, “I’m concerned that plan will be too hard for you to stick to. What do you think?”

Once all the ideas have been considered, one of them must be chosen. Pick an idea you can both accept. Remember, if the child owns the problem, then the child owns the solution. If the child and the parent own the problem together, both would need to agree upon the solution. Naturally, if the choice is dangerous to the child or others, the parent would need to become involved.

Lastly, agree to test the idea. Decide how long to use it before the idea has been given a fair test, then evaluate how things are going. Find out how the idea is working and then modify it if necessary.

Learning and teaching problem solving skills will help your child to become an independent and responsible human being. And, it will help keep the lines of communication between you and your child open, allowing for a mutually respectful and loving relationship throughout your lifetimes. What parent could ask for more?


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