To Nurture Your Children’s Problem-Solving Skills, Avoid Solving Their Problems

Claire Lerner, LCSW

Josie, 2 ½ years, wails when her mom, Tamisa, drops her off at preschool for day 3 at a new program. Previously, Josie had been in a family child care home with just 5 children. Tamisa feels sick to her stomach leaving Josie—the teachers have to peel her off Tamisa at drop-off. Even though the teachers tell Tamisa that this is very normal—it takes time for young children to get comfortable and feel safe in a new environment and Josie is calming more quickly and participating more each day—Tamisa is seriously considering just sending Josie back to the family child care home where she seemed so much more content.

It’s a natural, human reaction not to want to see our children struggle. Our knee-jerk response is often to rescue or “fix” whatever is causing our children distress. (One cry of frustration from my 3-year-old challenged by a puzzle resulted in my instantaneous, mom-to-the-rescue response—fitting the pieces in their correct spaces to make him feel all better—setting a pattern of him relying on me to be the fixer for years to come.) Often, the driving force behind solving our children’s problems is to protect them from feeling bad about themselves—like a failure; but we are actually doing the opposite, sending the message that they are not capable of mastering the challenges they face, and that only adults can solve their problems (which, by the way, can lead to placing blame on their parents for everything that doesn’t go right for them for years to come.) It also teaches that failure is to be feared, or something to be ashamed of, when it is in fact a critical component of the learning process.

Take the example of Josie: with empathy and support from Josie’s teachers, Tamisa was able to manage her anxiety and give Josie more time to adapt to this new experience, Tamisa changed her goodbye routine from one that showed worry and lack of confidence in Josie’s ability to handle this change—hovering and communicating with her tone of voice and body language how concerned and upset she was—to an approach that was validating, sensitive and positive. She acknowledged that starting something new can be scary, and that of course they will miss each other—that’s only natural—but mom’s job is to go to her office and work and Josie’s job is to play and learn at this amazing school. Within two weeks Josie was running joyfully into the classroom—making friends and engaging in all sorts of new activities—and protesting when it was time to leave.

So, don’t fear those moments when your child is facing a challenge; see them as powerful opportunities to help your child see herself as a good problem-solver and build resilience. This means getting comfortable with your child’s discomfort—a natural part of mastering a new skill.  (Picture your child learning to ride a 2-wheeler; if you never let go, your child never experiences the teetering—which can feel a little scary and uncomfortable—that leads to figuring out how to eventually maintain her balance and the incredible sense of pride she experiences when she masters the challenge.) Acknowledge her frustration and discomfort while showing her that you believe she can solve the problem. See yourself as her coach: guide her to try different spaces to figure out where the puzzle piece fits; brainstorm with your 3-year-old what else she can use for a cape (after you’ve told her the table cloth is off limits); ask your 4-year-old and his friend for their ideas for how to share the T-Rex they both want. While it is no doubt easier to swoop in as the fixer, acting as a supportive coach will build your child’s self-confidence and help her learn to muscle through life’s challenges.