Problem solving with your kids is a really helpful positive parenting tool. It shows your children respect, it models healthy conflict resolution, and it can be very effective in finding solutions for repetitive problems that seem to continue no matter what you do!
Read on to find out how you can use the 5 simple steps to problem solving with your kids.
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I first heard about these problem solving steps when I started teaching. I found them to be really helpful with students with whom I had already tried a variety of strategies to solve recurring problems, but which the usual strategies did not seem to be working.
The process always worked really well for me and so when I had my son, I was able to start using some of these steps with him as young as age 2 (and I definitely will keep using them as he gets older!)
I think the key reason why this tool works so well is that you are showing your kids that you respect them enough to sit down and consider their points of view and their ideas when there is a problem, instead of resorting to punitive or imposed solutions.
If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. ~Abraham Maslow
5 Steps to Solve Problems WITH Your Kids
Step 1. Acknowledge there is a problem and request a discussion.
Ask the child if it’s a good time to chat. Respect their answer. If they’re really engaged in an activity at the moment and you force the timing – they’re only going to resent having to chat with you. If the answer is a “No,” try asking when would be a better time.
Find a neutral place to talk, like on the couch or at the kitchen table where you can be on the same physical level.
Parent: “I need to talk to you about something. Is now a good time?”
Child: “I guess so.”
Parent: “Great – let’s sit over here at the table together.”
A problem is a chance for you to do your best. ~Duke Ellington
Step 2. Describe the problem from their viewpoint first and then yours.
Tell the child what you want to talk to them about. Start by describing what you think is their viewpoint. Check with the child to see if you have it right. Then state your feelings and point of view briefly.
Parent: “I want to talk to you about getting to school in the morning. I want to see things from your point of view. I think that you don’t like feeling rushed in the mornings and also don’t like it when I’m reminding you to hurry up. Have I got that right?”
Child: “Yeah, I hate it when you’re always telling me to hurry up, and I really don’t like when you get upset with me when we’re going to be late.”
Parent: “Okay, so you really don’t like me telling you over and over to get ready faster and it upsets you when I get mad.”
Parent: “Okay. Do you know what it’s like from my point of view? The problem is that if we get out the door late, you are late to school, and I end up being late for work too. That makes my boss upset with me and I feel really bad and irresponsible. I want my boss to know she can depend on me to be there on time.”
Child: “Oh, I never thought of that. Sorry Mom!”
Step 3. Brainstorm and record all possible solutions.
Ask for possible solutions to the problem. Write down all proposed solutions on paper (even if they’re silly, or you don’t like them.) Accept all your child’s ideas without comment and without censoring or evaluating.
Parent: “Okay – do you have some ideas for how we could get out of the house on time in the morning without me having to remind you to hurry up?”
Child: “Well, maybe I could get up earlier? Or you could pack my lunch for me?”
Parent: (Writing ideas down) “Maybe you could pack your own lunch the night before and pick out your clothes the night before?”
Child: “Or, maybe I could sleep in my clothes for the next day – then I’d be ready to go!”
Parent: “Maybe we could set an alarm to go off when there’s only 10 minutes left to get out the door, instead of me telling you to hurry up? Any more ideas?” (After recording all ideas.)
Child: “That’s all I can think of.”
You’re either part of the solution, or you’re a part of the problem. ~Eldridge Cleaver
Step 4. Discuss the pros and cons of all ideas.
Now that you have your list of ideas. Go through them one at a time and discuss the pros and cons. Cross any ideas out that clearly won’t work because of safety concerns. Be open to trying an idea that your child has suggested – even if you think it seems somewhat unconventional.
Parent: “Okay – let’s take a look at these ideas now. I think that getting up earlier sounds like a good idea. Do you think you could really do that though? We already get up fairly early.”
Child: “Okay – maybe not. Let’s cross that one off.”
Parent: “I’m not crazy about making your lunch for you. I think that’s something that you can do for yourself – and I’d like you to keep doing it. Can we cross that one off?”
Child: “I guess so. I guess I could pack my own lunch the night before to save time in the mornings. I really want to try sleeping in my clothes. I really think that would work.”
Parent: “I guess that would be okay with me. It won’t bother you that your clothes might get all crumpled?”
Parent: “What do you think about the alarm idea?”
Child: “I wouldn’t mind if you told me we had 10 minutes left Mom. I just don’t like it when you start yelling at me over and over to hurry.”
Step 5. Come to an agreement on which solution to try.
Review all the solutions that are workable. Decide when the new plan will start.
Parent: “Okay – so this is our new plan. You are going to start packing your lunch the night before. You are also going to choose your clothes for the next day and wear them to bed. In the morning when there’s 10 minutes left before it’s time to go, I will tell you one time how much time is left. Does that sound right?”
Child: “I think this will really work Mom!”
Parent: “Let’s give it a try starting tomorrow morning okay? Let’s shake on it!”
Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them. ~Paul Hawken
After you’ve tried the solutions a few times, it’s always a good idea to have a follow-up chat with your child. If things have worked well – it’s a great time to let your child know how much better you’re feeling about things.
If the problem is getting better, but is still not fully resolved, have another chat and make some tweaks.
If your child is not following through on their end of the agreement, go through the steps again and discuss how changes could be made to make things work.
Problem solving can be used with children aged 2 and up, although it looks quite different depending on the age of the child.
Older children will often participate quite actively in the brainstorming and discussion steps as long as they truly believe that you are open to their ideas.
With toddlers and preschoolers, you may be doing most of the brainstorming and discussing of pros and cons, but the children still feel powerful in helping to decide which solution they will try.
Just a side note: Try not to underestimate the ability of your children to generate solutions. My 4 year old son has become an expert in finding creative “compromises” that are the perfect blend of his and my ideas to solve a problem!
If you’re looking for even more tips for trying problem solving WITH your kids, be sure to check out Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish‘s best selling: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.
It describes in depth how to go through the process, gives lots of examples of real problem solving conversations, and answers common questions about problem solving that I didn’t have space to cover in today’s post.
Problem solving with your kids is such a powerful positive parenting tool. My experiences are that even just going through the process with a child can be beneficial.
The steps allow them to feel heard and understood, and they allow you to voice your concerns and frustrations in a constructive way. The process builds your child’s trust in you, while maintaining a secure, loving connection between you.
I hope you give these steps a try with your kids!
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Today’s post is part of our Positive Parenting: An Alphabetic Series. This week’s topic was S for Solves Problems.