Photo of Child and Parents solving a puzzle.
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Help Your Children Solve Any Problem

My wife, Erin, and I have been trying to teach our daughters to become effective problem solvers. Our youngest daughter recently showed us that our efforts are beginning to pay off. We have been trying to teach Maddy, our almost three-year old, to stay in her room and play with some toys or read a book if she wakes up and everyone else is still sleeping. Otherwise, Maddy will come into our bedroom, walk around to my side of the bed, and hit me until my eyes pop open. She usually follows the beating with the statement: “Shhh…Let’s leave so we don’t wake mama!” My wife swears she did not teach her to do that but I’m not sure if I believe her!

One particular morning, Maddy woke up early before any one was up. Remembering how we had been encouraging her to play or read, Maddy decided not to wake us. After she had played for a while, she determined that she was hungry for breakfast. Not wanting to disturb mom or dad, Maddy solved her hunger problem by getting a frozen dinner out of the freezer. She then sat in the middle of the living room floor and turned on the TV. With her favorite show on, she then chewed through the outer box, removed the plastic wrap, and placed the package of sprinkles on her frozen pudding. Hearing a strange noise, Erin walked out to investigate in which she discovered Maddy “gnawing” on a frozen chicken drumstick. When Maddy realized that mommy was present, she gave a huge smile and proudly stated: “Mommy…I got my own food…It’s good but it makes my teeth cold.”

Although Maddy didn’t quite understand the concept of frozen food, it still was a good attempt at problem solving. One of the most important skills we can give our children is the ability to solve their problems. Dr. Thomas Stanley, author of the bestselling book, The Millionaire’s Mind, has spent years studying the millionaire’s mind. One important aspect of his research revealed that it’s not high intellectual intelligence but high practical, problem-solving skills that defined the mind of a millionaire. Although “book smarts” which leads to academic success is important, we must help our children develop the ability find simple and practical ways to solve the problems they encounter.

Helping Your Children Become Effective Problem-Solvers

Teaching children to problem-solve begins with us modeling and verbalizing how to solve common problems. Notice that modeling alone is not sufficient to teach effective problem solving. Here, modeling needs to be combined with an explanation of how the problem was solved. In other words, we must explain the process we used to arrive at the solution. For example, instead of simply having your child watch you fix something around the house, verbally walk them through the steps.

Second, we must praise our kids when they attempt to solve problems. I had a rotation in a children’s therapeutic day treatment center during my doctoral internship and residency. One of the treatment goals was to foster better problem solving skills. Any time we noticed a child working on a project we would say, “Nice problem solving. I like how you…” We always encouraged their attempts and explained what they had done that was positive.

Third, encourage your children to ask for help but do not simply solve the problem for them. One of the greatest gifts you can give your children is to teach them to ask questions but then allow them to wrestle with the solution. If you merely solve all of their problems they do not learn how to think through the problem-solving steps.

Finally, take advantage of teachable times when your children make mistakes. You can use this time to probe ways they could have handled the situation differently to get more positive results.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
Website | + posts

Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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