As parents, we want to protect our kids from any harm that could come to them. It is an understandable sentiment, but one that if taken too far can cripple our children’s ability for problem solving on their own. This can reach into adulthood.
A few months ago, two of my boys were over at my friend Michelle’s and asked if they could ride to the bike park with her sons. She texted me to make sure that it was okay and then the four of them set off to the other side of our town. There is nothing quite as thrilling for a young teenage boy than to get a taste of independence!
While at the bike park, one of my boys took a nasty spill. He hurt his arm and leg but the brunt of the fall was to his back and he bore the drag marks to prove it. He was a bit bloodied and very sore. He was in no condition to ride his bike back to Michelle’s.
The four boys conferenced about what they should do. They threw about a few ideas and decided on a plan. None of them had a cell phone (collective gasp as you realize that my 12 and 13 year old do not own phones!) but they knew they could use a phone at a nearby business or ask to borrow a phone if need be. They decided against calling because Michelle has small children at home that she would have had to pack up to bring to come and get them and then there would be too many bikes to transport back.
It was decided that two of them (including the injured one) would take the bus back while the other two rode their bikes. Michelle had given them very clear instructions that they were to stick together and they did discuss that, but were able to override that using their common sense and reasoned that as long as they buddied up, it would still be safe to split up the larger group. Not all 4 could go on the bus because one of the bikes had tires that were too wide for the bus’ bike transport.
One of my sons had his debit card with him so they went to a bank machine to get out the money they would need, looked up the right bus route to take and two hopped on their bikes to head back while the other two boarded the bus. Michelle’s oldest (who was the oldest overall) stayed with my injured son on the bus. They all got back to Michelle’s safely. No adult had to bail them out of the situation. They problem solved. They felt a sense of pride and accomplishment.
There were times along the way that obstacles came up such as realizing that the one bike tire didn’t fit on the bus or when the lady working at the bus terminal was less than helpful. It was at these times where they could have given up and called for help but they were confident in their ability to handle the situation. They also knew they all had parents they could call on if the circumstances grew beyond their capacity to handle.
Why? Because they have been taught problem solving skills and because they have been given opportunities to manage problems on their own. We are always there for them to come to if they cannot figure out a solution or if their ideas fail, but we first let them try. We have gradually given them more and more opportunities over the years to hone their problem solving skills.
Tips to help your child’s problem solving skills:
Start young. When kids are young, parents should handle the medium sized and big problems and let them weigh in on the small ones. Talk to them about possible situations that could arise and ask them, “How would you have handled that?” or “What ideas do you have of what you could do in a situation like that?”
Encourage. If a child complains that they don’t know how to solve a problem, remind them that they are smart and capable. Tell them that you believe in their ability to figure it out.
Offer opportunities to practise and role play. When they come to you with a problem, instead of giving them a solution right away, ask things like “What do you think you could do?” or “What ideas can you think of?” You can then help them brainstorm possible outcomes using their ideas. Another good question is, “Can you think of a way we can solve this together?”
Offer choices. If they are stuck on coming up with ideas, give them different options. Talk about problems as being an opportunity to practise problem solving skills. We let our kids practise (which sometimes means they ‘fall’) on small problems so that they get better at these skills and can manage some of the bigger ones down the road.
Let them know you have their back. Knowing that capable adults will step in and help if a problem is too big for them gives kids the confidence to first try to tackle it on their own.
Our second oldest son who is 18, recently had his car towed for forgetting to renew his registration. I know that a lot of parents would have solved this problem for their child, paying for the huge costs of the towing and overnight storage (it was on a weekend so there were multiple nights of storage charged) and telling them exactly what to do, but I think that sends the message that you do not think your child is capable of solving this problem. Our son called us right away, but already had a plan. He even had enlisted the help of a friend to drive him to the registration office when it was open. I sympathized with his problem, said that I knew he would probably never forget to renew his registration again and said that if along the way, there became something he couldn’t handle, to give us a call. It turns out that there was also a problem with his insurance so he did end up having to call us in to help and we were happy to help at that point because he was in over his head. Up to that point though, all he needed from us was our guidance and confidence that he could handle it.
I’ll close this with what may seem like a silly example, but I think it demonstrates well the concept of allowing your kids to hone their skills by practising. The other day, the kids and I went for a walk. A “walk” is a term we use loosely around our house and it means getting around our subdivision in some fashion. Two of our girls were rollerblading using their older brothers’ rollerblades, one son was on his rip stick, another on a bike and two of us were walking.
Along the way, Granola Girl got a blister on one of her feet from the too-large-rollerblades and could no longer continue. I could have stepped in and said that she could take off the rollerblades and her socks and go barefoot or I could have offered to carry her home. But I hung back, allowing her some time to problem solve, ready to step in if her level of frustration grew too high. Before long, without any input from me, the kids had come up with a solution. She wore on of her brother’s shoes (on the foot with the blister) and he wore one of the rollerblades. They had a grand time each with one rollerblade for the rest of the way home. It was so much better than the solutions I could have come up with and it was one they could feel proud of because they had worked it out all by themselves!