There are several tools you can use to help your children learn how to be problem solve:
1. Let your child handle the little problems on their own. When your child looks in the fridge and complains their brother ate the last piece of pizza, don’t automatically suggest a solution for them. Answer, instead, “Wow, that’s a real bummer! And you especially saved it until after you finish studying!” Sympathize, look and act concerned, but don’t step in with a ready answer.
Your kids will probably get annoyed with this initially, since they’re used to having all of their problems solved for them:
“Where are my shoes?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t seen them.”
“But I need them!”
“Maybe you can wear your sandals.”
“No I can’t wear my sandals! Nobody wears that kind anymore!”
As you probably remember, many times kids aren’t happy with the solution we give them anyway. By not giving them an easy answer, you force them not only to work through the problem on their own, but also to take responsibility for the choices they make.
2. Lead them to the water, but don’t make them drink. If you find your child absolutely seems stuck, ask leading questions to help them along. In the above example, you could respond, “What do you think you will do? Will you eat later or do you think you might eat something else?”
Asking a question is very different than making the same suggestion of, “You could eat later or you could eat something else.” In the latter, the child will often reject it, simply because they are in a bad mood, and a statement is easier to reject. A question on the other hand, begs to be answered, if not right away, then after they have finished ranting and raving about evil siblings that should be ejected into outer space.
If they continue to rave and insist you find a solution for them, you can redirect their attention by asking, “What did you decide to do?” This puts the ball right back in their court.
3. Encourage them to evaluate their choices. The second most important thing to making your own choices is to periodically evaluate how those choices are working out. If you know your child was faced with making a choice -even an easy one like the example above- ask them a few hours later what their choice was, and how it went. This teaches them that choices are not something carved in stone. They are meant to be examined, evaluated, rolled about on the palate like a fine wine.
You can help your child learn to evaluate the effectiveness of their choices by asking questions like: What did you decide to do in the end about that boy who was bothering you?” Is it working out? Is it helpful? Is there anything you’d rather do differently?” Be careful not to be judgmental about a choice they’ve made.
Remember, it’s their choice, and if it isn’t a good one, they’ll find out soon enough. Your child will be better able to accept the consequences of a poor choice, and consider making a new one, if he views it as his own. Your job here is to reflect his answers, and show that you understand, sympathize, and support him.
Don’t give advice unless your child truly asks for it. Try and respond, “If it were me I would..” Be as brief as possible, and keep a careful eye on how your child receives the information. Deep down most children view their parents as all powerful. Sometimes even if you give them a great solution they might feel that they are not powerful/smart/strong enough to implement it. In our family I often send the child off to a sibling, suggesting maybe they have an idea of what to do.
4) Give your child more responsibility. Encourage your child’s independence by giving him responsibility consistent with his age and level of maturity. Many parents underestimate exactly how much responsibility their child is capable of handling. For example, in the country that I live it is very common for children as young as four to go to the store on their own and buy bread, milk, or some other basic commodity.
Even though there is no danger of kidnapping, child predators, etc, I was still very reluctant to let my children attempt such a feat. I grew out of it soon enough when I realized how self-sufficient those children were. They knew the value of money, they knew how much change to expect, and they were rightfully proud in helping out their families.
I did a complete turnaround, and by 12 my daughter was able to do a complete weekly shopping for the entire household. She learned how to comparison shop, look for good bargains, and would often on her own add items that were needed but that I had forgotten to put on the grocery list.
You may not feel comfortable going that far, but there are plenty of other small “jobs” you can give your children. A 3 year old can help separate out her clean clothing, and a four year old would be thrilled to wash out his plate and fork. A 6 or 7 year old can learn how to sew on a button, and as long as he can read, is more than capable of doing his own laundry.
Most parents make the big mistake of waiting until their children are older before the give them responsibility. Those same kids who at 3 and 4 were begging their parents to help will take a lot of convincing at 11 when asked to help pitch in. Why should they want to help? They’ve had it easy until now.
Try making a family meeting. Write down all the jobs that are done in your house, including things like working and changing the baby. Explain to them that you need their help; it’s impossible to continue as things are. Give examples to back up your case. Then show them how everyone will benefit by helping out. Then let them choose which jobs they will take over. There will be some jobs that they will not be able to do-like nursing the baby-but that’s okay. Having them down on the list will help them see that it too counts as a job, since it needs to get done.
5) Start out small, and add on as you go. With both younger and older children, your best bet for success is to start out small. Don’t expect your child to solve all of his problems on his own, or clean his whole room by himself, if he has never done it before. Not only will he lack the technical know-how to get the job done, but he will feel overwhelmed by just the thought of having to do all that work.
Giving children responsibility is a lot like teaching them to get dressed when they are small. You never start teaching them by giving them all of their clothing and walking away. Instead, you let them finish zipping up a jacket, or pull up their pants. Next time you might let them help with a button or two, or pull up their underwear on their own. And then before you know it, they’re getting dressed completely on their own.