Our children face daily problems: at home, at nursery, at school or in the playground. Moreover, as children grow up, problems become more complex, harder to solve, and they spend more time away from us and the people who they can continually rely on for sound advice and support. As parents, educators or teachers, we cannot always be there to solve the problems that show up in the lives of our children. And, you know what?! This is not our role either. Our role is to teach our children to solve their own problems so that they can truly become autonomous, confident, capable, independent, and successful.
A child’s ability to solve their own problems is one of the most complicated skills to be developed. To do this, children need to think independently, to be responsible and trust their selves when faced with tough situations. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, in 2020 the ability to solve conflicts and complex problems will become the most important skill set that an adult needs to develop their career and one that will be tested the most by employers in the future to assess suitability for employment.
We are happy when a child speaks their first words or when they take their first steps, these being the first signs of our child’s autonomy, but many times we fail to remain just observers and to give them the opportunity to resolve their own conflicts. If we involve ourselves too much children learn to become dependable, fearful, timid and insecure children and as they grow older they may need much more support and reassurance that they are doing things right than a child who has been gifted with autonomy and can, in their adult life, overcome insecurity, mistakes or frustrations and develop creative solutions.
The good news is that you can help your child in becoming creative, energetic, independent, and daring. Here are 7 steps (and some great ideas) in developing your child’s autonomy and problem solving skills.
Practice is the key to learning
Keeping children away from trouble is not a solution; your child will live in a real world, where conflicts and problems are part of daily life. Give them the chance to face the problems, let them take part in the conflicts you are confronted with as adults, and teach them how to find solutions. By the age of 6, children learn by imitating you, they will try to observe your attitude towards problems, emotions and thoughts, and possible solutions, so show them how it’s done and watch them as they amaze you by putting your coping strategies into practice!
A great idea to developing the drive to practice is to find an activity you both have never done and learn it together.
Here’s some ideas you could maybe try:
- Learning an instrument
- Playing a sport
- Soap or slime making
- A DIY project
When starting the project speak about your feelings beforehand, praise each other when things go well and share your frustrations with your child when you make mistakes and encourage them to do the same. After the activity, reflect on your experiences and speak about what you have individually identified you are going to practice and improve on the next time. I have started tennis with my little one and we now love learning and practising together. Our next project is the Saxophone (god help our neighbours!)
The age of “why” is long-awaited, albeit a little bit tiring. However, remember that by asking questions, children are trying to collect information that will help them to hypothesize and think. The good news is that if your child has got to this point, not only have you been great in making your child feel secure in exploring the world around them, your child in regards to language development is also very skilled. At this stage by answering many questions (even when a why leads to ten more why’s and you feel tied up in knots), your child develops logical reasoning and learns how to find solutions.
Some advice for this somewhat trying time is that almost half of the questions a child ask in a day, a parent does not know the answer to. Tell your child that you don’t know the answer and give them a project that requires them to work to find out the answer by themselves and come back to tell you, as it is something you would also love to know. Not only does this develop autonomy and self-esteem it also gives you some precious time between the next Q and A round!
Mistakes are the road to success
Even in our adulthood, we often face the situations in which we make errors at work or in interpersonal relationships. But that helps us to improve ourselves, because from every mistake we learn something that we did not know, or are able to change something we did not do well before. The same thing happens in the brain of a child who learns best by experimenting by the “trial and error” method. The first steps your child tries to takes at first come with many falls, but that does not lead them to abandon this task – if anything by failing your child becomes more persevering and slowly, through your encouragement, support and your child’s mistakes, your child learns to walk by himself, and then to run.
A great way to look at mistakes with your child is to not make it appear like a huge stumbling block or failure, but to praise your child in identifying them and problem solving to correct them. When my daughter does her homework for example, I ask her to read through what she is required to do and ask questions if she needs to. After this I let her work independently to finish the task. Once she is finished she has a special purple teachers pencil and I ask her to be the teacher (we have a bit of joking role play where she mimics the way her teacher behaves) and then she checks through her work. When she identifies a mistake I praise her and ask her what she is going to do to change it. Doing this for several months now means that my daughter has developed her skills so she is able to find mistakes whilst in the process of writing or working with numbers and is starting to correct them before she checks through at the end. Most importantly we have a motto that “Mistakes are fine, that is why pencils have rubbers at the end.”
Ask for your child’s opinions and let them decide
Have you noticed the enthusiasm on your child’s face when you appreciate their actions? The same thing happens in their brain when we give them a chance to decide in various situations, or even to participate in important, adult decisions. You will notice how your child’s self-esteem will grow considerably; making them a child and later a balanced adult who is able make accurate and quick decisions.
Giving children a choice in situations is brilliant for helping them develop having the confidence to share their opinions and feelings. I am not speaking about the choices that allow them to avoid the unavoidable such as bedtime but a choice in how that may occur.
For example I may say “Elsie you are going to bed at 7.30pm, would you like to have a bath before you go to bed and play with your water toys or would you prefer to listen to an audiobook for half an hour.”
By doing this I am not changing the action that I want to achieve (Bed at a reasonable time) but I am giving my daughter choice and control in how that occurs so that she feels a part of the decision and understands that she has a valid opinion and voice.
Do not answer or do in their place
At birth your child new baby seems fragile and there is a sense of needing to protect them from the world. This is of course needed when your child is unable to meet their basic needs to survive, however over protecting your child as they grow could have the opposite effect. It is very important to develop your child’s emotional intelligence and conflict resolution capability by not doing things yourself instead of involving them, especially if your child does not ask for help. This over-protective attitude, despite good intentions, will not develop the self-confidence of the child and will learn them that to get anything done you should place responsibility for finding solutions on someone else’s shoulders.
Some things I have tried (although somewhat messy) have involved allowing my daughter to make her own drink and breakfast, informing her that I expect she brushes her own teeth each morning and night (but allowing her to pick the toothbrush!) and asking her to learn how to make her own bed (This was very frustrating for her, but amazing to watch her work though how she coped and now she makes her own bed better than me). There are lots of other things you can try and if it doesn’t work just remember it is not the end product but the process of getting there that makes your child become great, so keep allowing them to practice!
Let your child struggle
Trying not to help immediately when your child gets stuck on a task is hard but beneficial. Let’s take an example of a puzzle that they have started. If he or she does not manage to place a piece correctly, do not rush to help. Let them try several options, for it is possible to succeed by themselves. If you help them right away, your child will not learn what to do when faced with a problem and will always depend on your help. Moreover, instead of offering complete solutions help with recommendations and suggestions.
Some advice to support you with this is to just guide their steps by offering clues. In the puzzle’s case, you can say subtly “Maybe that piece does not match here, try with another” or “turn the piece on the other side and see what happens.” You will help them learn that they may have to test several ideas to solve the problem and that sometimes they will not find the solution with the first attempt.
Have rules and boundaries
Unconditional parenting is not equivalent to a childhood without any rules. Rules are beneficial in the emotional development of the child, helping to shape their behaviour. Children live within systems and societies where expectations will be placed on them. Clearly defining your boundaries and expectations will allow them to understand what it expected of them and will provide them with a secure base of safety that they need to feel in order to be able to explore the world. At the same time, rules can teach children to distinguish between positive and negative behaviours and allow them to identify any issues in the relationships they have with and between the people they meet and communicate with.
In the end…
We all sometimes feel “stuck” in the face of our problems, whether small or large, but by developing an open attitude, the courage to try and fail, being creative and playful, we can learn to unlock and to enjoy our way of solving problems.
The ability for a child to solve their problems is a complex task, and parents are pivotal in supporting this to be a success if they arm themselves with patience, perseverance and lots of love. And remember the above all other that emotional intelligence and the ability to solve conflicts are learned from the early years of life and represent the foundation of the adult that your child will become.