How Do I Teach My Kid To Solve Her Problems?


The ability to problem solve is not a birth right.  It is neither programmed into our DNA nor passed down in utero.

Solving problems is a learned skill.

And it don't come easy.

Image: renjith krishnan /


When I’m faced with a whopper of an issue in my personal life, my problem solving cycle looks a little like this:

 Step One: Blind Panic and Overreaction

(Translation: “Oh my god I have no idea what to do.  This is the BIGGEST problem I’ve EVER had and I’m now going to be a big, fat failure because I don’t know how to solve it.  And everyone is going to KNOW that I’m a big fat failure.”)

Step Two: Ask for input from trusted friends and advisors

(Translation: I talk the ears off of the immediate world, asking their opinions so I can weigh my reaction against theirs.  This may or may not include twitter, facebook, conversations with colleagues and friends, and if the problem is REALLY terrible… prayer.)

Step Three: Wait

(Translation: My first reaction (or second or third…) often can not be trusted.  So I wait for at least 24 hours before doing anything.)

Step Four: Find a solution and move on

(Translation: Exactly what it sounds like)


I know for sure that Karma is a bitch and Irony is her moody BFF.  The proof: I’m completely baffled by my 5-year-old, Peanut, who daily complains through tantrums, tears, and pleading that she hates Kindergarten and doesn’t want to go ever again.  Peanut is squarely in the freak-out phase (Step One) of her problem solving cycle.  And she’s stuck but she doesn’t know how to solve her own problems yet.

This may or may not be because I haven’t taught her yet.

<Let’s pause here a moment for your judgement of my parenting skills.  It’s ok.  I deserve it.>

I’ve been alternating between panicking, blaming myself, blaming others, and judging Peanut for her abhorrence to school.  I’ve talked it over with trusted friends and family.  I’ve approached the teacher(s), guidance counselor, and principal.  I’ve brainstormed reasons why Peanut may hate school and what we can do to fix it.

And then I realized, WAIT A MINUTE.  This isn’t my problem to solve.


It's hers.

Let me quantify…I’m not a “tough luck” kind of Mom who is ready to force her kid out the door through tears.  Going to school for the first time is a big change and we are only 4 weeks in.   And while I don”t want to say “too bad, kid” each time Peanut processes her overwhelm, I also don’t want to indulge these huge feelings (and complaints) without moving her towards a solution.

A friend recently pointed out that I wouldn’t expect to know how to sky dive by watching someone else do it. I would need a step-by-step guide;  I would need direct instruction.  On a similar note, I want both of my girls to find their own solutions – but I can’t expect them to do that until I teach them how to problem solve.

Today, Peanut had yet another melt down about how much she hates school.  I pressed for details but only got a few:  she’s bored, she has to sit all day, she misses her old school and friends, she has to wake up so early.  Instead of feeling panicked, though, I had a plan.  It was time to teach some problem solving.

Here are the steps I used to teach Peanut the problem-solving cycle:


1.  Validate, Validate, Validate (a.k.a. Feel The Feelings)

I firmly believe that we can’t move to the problem solving until we’ve finished the problem defining.  And part of that is feeling the (big) feelings that come along with a problem.

Big feelings are allowed in our house. Along with bad, spiky hair. Apparently.

Image: akeeris /

I listened to every complaint Peanut has about school.  I repeated them right back to her.  I validated that of course she misses her old friends.  I told her that change is sometimes hard and it’s normal to feel sad or angry or overwhelmed.  We talked about how important it is to feel our feelings and talk about them with people who can listen.


2.  The Wishing Phase

As a first year teacher, I read a book called “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.”  The most valuable take away from that book was the power of wishing.  The more outlandish, the better. When I responded to my students’ complaints about homework with something like, “Boy, I bet you wish homework was illegal and anyone who assigned homework went to jail,” the response was miraculous.  The kids opened up and started wishing right along with me.  After that, they could turn their focus to the solution.


Please let my school disappear. PLEASE let my school disappear!

Image: Stuart Miles /

With Peanut, I asked her what she wished would happen with Kindergarten.  Her reactions were what I expected:

“I wish I didn’t have to wake up when it’s still dark outside.”

“I wish I could go to school half days instead of whole days.”

“I wish school was all about playing.”

I added my own wishes, too.  I wished that going to school felt like going to an amusement park.  I wished school was on Mars so we could take a rocket ship instead of a bus.  And so on.

We talked about the differences between wishes and choices.  Wishes are things that probably can’t happen (like a school on Mars) and choices are things that probably could happen.


3.  Pick one problem

We had laughed during the wishing phase, which lightened the mood.  The tears were drying and the scowl had disappeared.  But hating school is way too big of a problem for me a five year old  to tackle. I told Peanut that we were a problem solving team but that we had to pick one to solve at a time.


We'll tackle one at a time. Together.


I was surprised when Peanut told me she wanted to start with the morning routine.  We clearly defined the problem; the new schedule means that Peanut has to wake up early and has little play time before the bus.


4.  Define The Choices

Now that we knew what problem to tackle, we were ready to brainstorm our choices.  How could we make sure that Peanut had time to play in the morning before the bus came?

Define the options.

Image: Salvatore Vuono /

I got quiet here and let Peanut do most of the thinking.  There was more whining and a few “you never let me” statements, which I ignored.  This was the time for solutions and she came up with some real choices, including: waking up earlier to have play time, coming downstairs by herself when her alarm goes off to play in her playroom before breakfast, or playing in her room until we come get her to get dressed.


5.  Make A Choice and Create A Plan


If only it were this easy!

Image: scottchan /

Peanut decided that what she really wanted was time in her playroom, without her sister, before breakfast.  We made a plan to have her come downstairs when her alarm goes off and I committed to 15 minutes of uninterrupted playtime.  I agreed to bring her outfit downstairs so she could get dressed before breakfast.


 6.  Implement and Evaluate

I wish that we could make a plan and have that be the end of it.  But now we have to implement our new routine and see if it actually works.  We talked more about our plan at dinner, which reinforced the problem solving cycle and brought Daddy up to speed.

Did we hit the target?

Image: graur razvan ionut /

After a few days of the new routine, I’ll ask Peanut if she feels better about waking up early.  And we’ll see if we solved the problem.  If so, GREAT!  We’ll move on to the next hurdle.  If not, we will revisit our choices to see if we missed something.


I have no idea if this process will work as a problem solving strategy for Peanut or as a way to solve the “I hate school” dilemma.  But I like that Peanut is driving both the problem identifying and the problem solving. 

And as her mom, that just feels right.



What tips/tricks have you used to teach your kids (or students) to solve their problems autonomously?


Disclosure: I get no kick backs from Amazon, not was I asked to review the book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen.”  It was just a helpful book that was the inspiration for #2 above.


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