Can children solve their own problems?

By Derold “De” Bates, Ed.S.

When you solve a problem for a child, you help him through his day. When you teach a child to solve his own problems, you help him through his life.

By the very nature of parenting, parents must be responsible for their kids. Without a plan to teach children to take responsibility for their own actions and solve their own problems, parents must assume this responsibility indefinitely.

Notice the word “take” in the previous sentence. Taking responsibility is empowering and motivating while being given responsibility is a chore. One way parents can teach their children to take responsibility for their own actions and solve their own problems is teaching it purposefully, making each problem a problem-solving experience for the child.

For example, 5-year-old Jeni comes to the kitchen table, reaches up and grabs a pitcher of syrup. She tries to pour the syrup on a pancake on her plate, which is at the edge of the table between her and the syrup. The syrup misses her plate and pours down the front of her and onto the floor. Her parent rushes to the table and grabs the pitcher.

A common parent response might be, “Look what you’ve done! You’ve spilled the syrup all over the floor and all over yourself! You need to get someone to help you when you need something from the table! Now we will have to clean you up and clean the floor.”

What is wrong with this response?

Two things are wrong: First, this common response told Jeni something she already knew: she spilled the syrup. This is a “put-down” for Jeni like it is for anyone who is told something she already knows.

Second, the parent gave the responsibility to Jeni for getting help when she needs something from the table. This becomes a chore for Jeni, and she will not be motivated to do it.

Now let’s look at an uncommon response that teaches Jeni to solve her own problems.

Uncommon response: “Jeni, what happened?”

Jeni: “I needed some syrup. But it slipped, and I got it all over me.”

Uncommon response: “Did you like the way that turned out?”

Jeni:  “No, I am all sticky.”

Uncommon response: “What can you do next time you need something from the table?

Jeni: “I can get someone to help me.” (Bingo! Jeni is taking the responsibility to get help when she needs something from the table. Likely she’ll do it. It is her idea and her plan.)

Uncommon response: “Do you think it will work better for you if you do that next time.”

Jeni: “Yeah.”

Uncommon response: “I’m sure it will. Now let’s get you cleaned up.”

Notice the common response told Jeni to get help when she needed something from the table.

The uncommon response helped Jeni understand her action and how it created the bad outcome. The questions in this response also helped Jeni judge the value of her action and guided Jeni in developing a plan of action — her plan, one she chose, that would work out better for her next time.

Notice also in the uncommon response, Jeni owned the bad action. This gave her power to change what she did, which will change the outcome next time.

For more information refer to Bates’ book “Three Steps to Success in Parenting and in Life,” available in bookstores and through this Web site successinparenting.com. Questions and comments can be emailed to debates3@gmail.com.

Brianna, left, and Jesus Avila share toys while playing together. Teaching children to solve their own problems without the help of adults can set them up for success in the future. Photo by Jenny Losee.

Brianna, left, and Jesus Avila share toys while playing together. Teaching children to solve their own problems without the help of adults can set them up for success in the future. Photo by Jenny Losee.

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