Problem solving

Bed time not working? Problem solve!  Leaving the house takes forever?  Problem solve!  Kids want the same toy? Problem solve!  You don’t have enough snack? Problem solve!

Problem solving is an essential skill for life so how young can a child learn this skill and how in the world do we teach it?  

Amazingly enough, researchers say that children as young as 18 months can learn how to solve problems.  Imagine what this would do for you; fewer fights with siblings and parents, more independence, higher self-esteem, more self-reliance, and the list goes on and on not to mention higher thinking skills for school.

So we know all the benefits of having problem solving skills, but how do we teach it? 

First and foremost, it takes patience.  If you solve the problem then it is much much quicker, but if you step back and just ask questions, it may take a lot longer, but the child builds the skills for solving their own problems.

For children who are very young (under two) you can start teaching it by looking for something that is lost.  “Where is it?” can be heard over and over again in houses with very young children. It would take just seconds for you to find their missing shoe, favorite toy or family pet, but it wouldn’t teach any skills.  If you have the patience to take ten minutes to find that shoe (I promise you, the people who are waiting for you won’t care, and if they do, tell them you were teaching your child problem solving skills).  

As the child gets older, bigger problems will arise such as taking turns with toys, not getting their way, boredom, disagreements with friends and the list goes on…

Problem solving skills are also essential for dealing with problems that are affecting the whole family such as bedtime or getting out of the house in the morning.

The steps for solving problems are as follows:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What are some solutions?
  3. What solution did we choose?
  4. Did that solution work?

Let’s start with what is the problem?

The first step in problem solving is always naming the problem.  Once children can name the problem, they stop worrying about blame or past grievances and can move towards solving what is wrong.

When there is a conflict, our first reaction is to jump in and start yelling.  But if we stop and either say, “uh oh” (for younger kiddos)  or “What is the problem?” (for older kiddos)  Then we are asking our children to start thinking about what is happening.

I’m gonna go out on limb here and say that with children under the age of five, 99.97% of problems are around both children wanting the same thing.  So that makes this part easy.  You say, “Uh oh, you both want the red car” or “What is the problem?” and if they aren’t sure, “Did both of you want the swing with the blue seat?” 

Once the problem is named, what are some solutions?

Chances are, the children are too young or don’t have exposure to problem solving skills so for a good while, you will have to narrate and give them the language to problem solve. 

So you can start with, “I have an idea (or I have a solution); we can put the red car away so that nobody will fuss over it” (I always give the worst solution first so that children don’t automatically jump on it and then they have to think.  It shows them that there is always more than one idea and often it is the one that we go with if we can’t find agreement.)

Then you can ask for other ideas and again if they are younger or not sure, offer ideas. “Or we can let child A have the car for a couple of minutes and then child B can have the car.”  When child B fusses, switch the order.  Now we have gone through three possible solutions and still no one is happy.  This is where it gets fun.  This is where you can get really creative and eventually teach your children to do the same.  Say, “OK, here’s another idea, we could paint another car red and then you both have red cars.  Or we could make another red car out of paper and then we would have two. OR (and it’s fun to see how crazy you can get) we could saw the red car in half and you can each have half!” (make sure it is something you can really do (or at least try) in case they choose that option.)

Then you have to pick one solution.  If there is no agreement, then the parent can choose one, and the parent usually chooses the least desirable option.

Then implement and later you can ask the children, did that solution work?

Since each problem is different, each solution will be different as well and this is where you and your child can get very creative.  Again, it takes so much longer to have a child solve a problem and usually the solution is not one that you would choose, but it is one of the most important skills they can learn.

You can then use these steps to solve any problem that comes up in your family.