The Blog

As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Problem Solvers


Most parents want the best for their children.  For some parents, however, the best means that their child should never be unhappy, frustrated, or suffer any unpleasantness.  In other words, the child should experience a perfect world.  Since we live in an imperfect world and since parents cannot control what the rest of the world will do, they experience frustration and anger.

Instead of trying to change the world to make it perfect, parents would be much more helpful if they gave their children the tools to become problem solvers, competent to take care of themselves, eventually to become independent adults.

When one child hits another, parents tend to call the offending child’s mother and complain or they tell the offending child to go home and never play with their child again.  If a child comes home from school and complains that he does not like the child sitting next to him, some parents call the teacher and ask that their child’s seat be changed.  These actions show that the parents do not have confidence in their child’s ability to solve his own problems. Parents who respond this way tend to produce children who are dependent on them.  Dependent children can eventually be burdens to parents. Of course, this may be exactly what some parents, consciously or unconsciously, are trying to achieve. In either case, the benefits to the child as a future adult are dubious.

In helping children become problem solvers, parents can begin by helping them explore alternatives rather than giving specific advice. Parents should first help the child clarify how he feels about the situation. “How does it make you feel when Johnny pushes you?” It may be that the child is not angry but is sad because Johnny is the most popular boy in class, and he wants him for a friend.  The parent will not really know this unless he asks the child.  The next step for the parent is to help the child explore alternatives and decide what options are available to him to solve the problem.

The parent might say: “Shall we think of some things you could do about it?” The parent should attempt to get several ideas from the child about how he can solve the problem, and should help evaluate the possible outcomes of each alternative and then encourage the child to choose one as a course of action.

After the child is committed to one course of action, the parent should schedule a time with the child when they can evaluate the results together. If the problem is not resolved to the child’s satisfaction, he might want to explore another alternative.

All of this might take more time on the part of adults than simply solving problems for children, but it is time well spent.  Parents are more helpful to children if they help them feel competent and in charge of their lives. Parents need to express confidence in their children’s ability to solve their own problems. The more successful children become at doing this, the better able they are to accept the fact that, although the world is imperfect, they can handle it.

Parents who promise their children a perfect world, and then try to get it for them, are setting the children up for disappointment and discouragement. These children seem to be especially vulnerable as adolescents when parents have less control over what happens in their lives, and the children lack the tools to act responsibly on their own. I encourage parents to begin when their children are young to help them become competent problem solvers. When successful, parents have given their children tools which last a lifetime.

Posted in Behavior, Parenting | 1 Comment

One Response to Problem Solvers

  1. This is terrific advice! I am going to work on parenting techniques that help my children “feel competent and in charge of their lives”. There are times when taking charge is the right call, like protecting their physical safety (my kids are 5 and 1, so this is still a primary role for us). Or when you’re dealing with limitations that they don’t understand yet (like rushing out the door to keep an appointment). Thank you Nancy for this advice to be mindful of the need to foster independent thinking as well. Always a challenging balancing act!

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