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!

Start Young to Make Your Child a Competent Problem Solver

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

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.

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