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Oregon Family Magazine

Lessons For Life

09/03/2010 06:18AM ● By Anonymous
Teaching our children positive problem solving skills

It’s a big day for Jane and her 10-year-old twin daughters, Chloe and Sara. The girls have been asking all summer whether they can walk to the playground alone and today, because their friend Megan is with them—and Megan, at 12, is allowed to walk to the playground alone—Jane has finally said yes.

Jane quizzes the girls: “What do you do if someone approaches you on your way to the playground? “What do you do if your sister gets hurt? What if there’s someone there who is drinking or using bad language?”

After answering all the questions to Jane’s satisfaction, they can go—but only if they promise to check in on their walkie-talkies once they arrive. “We know all of the rules, Mom,” says Sara. “We’ve been over them a thousand times. Don’t worry.”

As the girls skip merrily down the street with Megan, Jane wonders if the walkie-talkies were a bit over the top. “There are so many scary stories in the media, and sometimes it’s hard to know how much is too much,” she says. “But I know that someday I’ll have to let them go.”

Only ten minutes later, Chloe calls, crying, on the walkie-talkie. “On the way over we started talking about what we’d do, and Sara wants to play on the swings with Megan but I wanted to play kickball,” Chloe says. “We can’t agree. Can you come over and help us sort it out?” And she does, wondering what she should have done differently.

Across town, an admissions counselor picks up the telephone. Again it’s Mrs. Reis, who wants to talk about her son’s schedule. “I’m worried that his classes will be too early in the day and he won’t do well. He’s not a morning person,” she says. The admissions counselor is careful not to promise anything as she assures Mrs. Reis that her son will be able to create a reasonable schedule during orientation.

It’s been called “Helicopter Parenting” and simply “Over-parenting,” this often fear-based effort to keep children from harm and minimize their problems, and it’s not considered an effective way to raise responsible adults.

“Fear is a kind of parenting fungus: invisible, insidious, perfectly designed to decompose your peace of mind,” author Nancy Gibb noted in a recent Time magazine article “The Growing Backlash against Over-parenting,” which argues that perhaps the same impetus that created “Kinderkords” might also contribute to over-programming and kids who are under far too much pressure to succeed, who arrive at college unable to make decisions for themselves or ready to crack at the slightest pressure. We need to back off a bit, while at the same time giving them the tools they need to solve their own problems.

Building a foundation for success

Opportunities to teach our children to deal with problem situations and build confidence in navigating the world begin in early childhood, when, for example, two children argue over a toy. In elementary school, the problems become a bit more complex, for example a disagreement with a friend on the playground or even a decision between two equally desirable after-school activities.

Rachel Jochem, M.S., a PhD Candidate in Human Development who specializes in parenting and children's emotional development, notes that the temptation for parents is to give children solutions rather than let them struggle (or wait for them to struggle) with developing them on their own. But it’s worth the time it takes to do it.

“When we allow children to develop their own strategies, we show them that we trust them, and that we have confidence in them,” she says. “Later, in reviewing the decision, we can build on that trust and confidence by acknowledging the good decisions, and by offering alternatives for next time when decisions were not so good.”

The steps we teach our children for problem solving are the same ones that we use every day as adults, Jochem says. “The trick is to meet the child’s ability to engage in the process with our own support and guidance.”

The basic steps for problem solving Jochem provides are as follows:

  1. identify the problem (“what’s happening here?”)
  2. brainstorm options and ideas
  3. consider the consequences
  4. choose a solution and go with it
  5. consider the success of your choice
Children at different ages will deal with these steps differently, she notes. Younger children will depend on adults to articulate another’s perspective—and help them develop the empathy that is critical to conflict resolution—but as children age into elementary and middle school years, parents should encourage children to articulate these things themselves. “Taking the truck from Johnny made him cry, I think he is upset” shifts to “How does your sister feel when you skip her turn?” and the all important “Why do you think she feels that way?””

In addition to modeling positive problem-solving behavior, Jochem offers a few suggestions for ensuring that children will make good decisions.

--Build their sense of self esteem and self respect by listening to them and acknowledging their perspectives (even if they are different from yours!). --Give them opportunities to voice their opinions about decisions involving themselves and the family. --Get them involved in household decisions around things like curfews or chores. “Not only will this demonstrate your respect for their opinions, it will encourage engagement in the family which in turn helps them make decisions that take more than themselves into consideration.” -- Let them make mistakes, and show them unconditional love when they need your comfort because they chose the wrong thing (resist “I told you so!).

Teen Talk

If raising younger kids wasn’t enough to make our hair turn white, then they become teenagers.

The decisions teenagers are faced with are enough to make even the most confident parent overdo it, Jochem acknowledges. Teenagers “…are going to do things you don’t like, they are going to make choices you wouldn’t and they are not going to be you. By and large, your job is to cope and love them all the way through it. Their choices are going to feel more critical, because they are no longer focused on whose turn it is on the computer, rather they are going to be deciding which boy to spend the afternoon with. This adds an element of terror to parenting which may cause parents to want to clamp down tighter, limiting their teen’s ability to make decisions.”

While this approach may help parents feel in control in the short run, Jochem says that in the long run, tightening the reigns may cause teens to push harder against their parents, making choices that they know their parents won’t approve of in an effort to reassert themselves. “During this time, as hard as it is, it is essential for parents to continue to let teens have the space and freedom to make their own decisions,” she advises.

That doesn’t mean that parents should adopt an “anything goes” attitude once their children are old enough to leave home unsupervised, of course. As with all ages, parents need to model good behavior and provide guidance when needed—it’s just that they need to be a little less overt about it—save the speeches and lectures for another audience.

“Parents need to take advantage of times when their teens are receptive to them. When teens approach you wanting to talk, seize the opportunity and listen to what they have to say. Ask them their thoughts, and whether they have a plan, rather than outlining your own. Teens sometimes feel as though they have no options, and parents can be essential for helping them come up with alternatives. When talking about how things have gone wrong, be honest about the foolishness of their choices, but before judging them, remember how foolish your choices can be sometimes as well. They are learning to be adults, just like all of us are, every day.”

“With teens, it is even more critical that they feel that you trust and respect them,” she adds. “Teens thrive on respect, and you have to give it in order to get it.”

You must remember this

It sounds like common sense, but Jochem offers some important words of wisdom for parents (and children of any age):

“Decision-making is a lifelong endeavor and shouldn’t be viewed as a solitary struggle. We try to make the right decisions throughout our lives. We depend on friends and family to help us gain perspective and give us strength to implement the tough choices. Just as our toddler needs us to help them disengage from a toy and get ready to leave for the market, or give up the desire for the sweet treat and eat some veggies, adults need help letting go of what is easy in place of what is right, and eating a salad instead of a donut.

“As coaches for burgeoning decision makers, we may feel like frauds, wondering, “how can I help someone make a decision, when I hardly know what to do with myself?!” Forgive your children’s bad choices as you forgive your own. Encourage your children to learn from their mistakes as our friends encourage us to learn from our own. Give your children credit for their good choices as you praise yourself for yours. Help them recognize when they do need help, and give them permission to ask for it. Asking for help when you need it isn’t weakness. It takes a lot of strength to realize and admit that you can’t make all the right choices on your own, all the time.”

by Zanne Miller