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More Problem-Solving with the Kids

Posted Jun 26 2009 5:31pm
The post about problem-solving I wrote the other day focused on how I spend a good chunk of my time helping the older kids handle their conflicts with each other in a rational, fair way. After I published the post, I had the eye-widening realization that one day, there will be three kids having a conflict with each other! That's a thought that makes me a little weary.

One point I didn't make is how often I really don't have to step in and facilitate their conflict resolution. Sometimes I'll hear them gearing up toward a full-out war of wills and then one of them will say, "I know! What if we . . . ?" and then offer a solution that's fair and that everyone can live with. Or one will express emotion appropriately "I don't LIKE it when you do that!" So I don't always jump in and start helping them with their problem. I will listen a bit and give them a chance to get down to business before I get involved.

Sometimes, my only role is to step in and say "Sounds like a problem here. You two need to work on solving this and if you need my help, please let me know." My intervention serves two purposes: to remind them to focus on solving the problem, and also to stop the escalating emotions (and retributions) in their tracks before someone's feelings really get hurt.

Now that they have quite a bit of practice at this method of problem-solving, and they both understand that problem-solving is one of their responsibilities (not mine), they really are pretty good about managing this stuff on their own. No, not all the time--they're only 7 and 4--but they can and will do it. It really helps now that Morgan is older. When she was younger, and with Sean, I will play the role of the younger party so that the older kid gets negotiation practice, and to model this for the younger child. (And to prevent the younger child from being steamrolled by Ryan the older child.) Sean doesn't get it right now, but that's okay. One day he will begin to understand that this is how we do things and that he can count on me to help him say words and express his feelings. You gotta start sometime, and babyhood is the perfect time to get in the habit, I think.

What's interesting to me is what happens when I use this technique when the kids' friends are over and there's some kind of altercation. Only one of their friends (Livy) is parented in the same way my kids are. She's more used to how we do things and expects to be a part of the problem-solving process. But their other friends are not parented this way. Usually, the first time I sit the kids down to express their feelings, identify the problem and come up with solutions, the other child is very surprised. One of Ryan's friends routinely refuses to participate, which is frustrating for Ryan--and me. Another of his friends is an enthusiastic participant, generating solutions long past the time we agreed on a plan.

Another thing I didn't mention in my post the other is just how often I use this technique to problem-solve the conflicts I have with the kids. It's tough to do, because I am both a party to the conflict and yet still a facilitator, but I think it's been mutually beneficial to everyone. Here are a few examples just from today.


Problem: I was paying bills on the computer and Morgan was interrupting me, despite my asking her repeatedly to give me a few minutes to finish before I could talk to her.

I took my hands off the keyboard, turned around to her and said: "Morgan, I'm feeling frustrated. I've told you several times that I can't talk right now."

Morgan: "But I need you to look at this!" [brandishes a dog picture in my face]

Me: "I know you need me to look at your picture. And I want to. But I'm working right now and I'd like to finish this."

Morgan: "Well, look at it now!"

Me: "We have a problem. I need to look at the computer and my head is filled up with the words and things I'm thinking. I know you need me, but sometimes, since my head is so full of words, it takes me a while to hear the words you are saying. You don't like it when I'm not listening and paying attention to you, and you want to show me your picture. How can we solve this problem?"

Morgan, thinking: "Maybe I can wait until you are done?"

Me: "Yes, that would be helpful to me if you can do that. But if you think I'm taking too long, why don't you put your hand on my knee? That would tell me you are getting impatient and not interrupt my thinking. What do you think, can you do that?"

Morgan: "Okay!"


Problem: I needed everyone to be quiet while I was trying to get the baby to sleep. He had fallen asleep in the car and I explained to R & M before coming inside that I was going to get him to go back to sleep, so we all needed to be q-u-i-e-t. They agreed to this while we were all still in the car (or so I thought). Once inside though, they began pestering me with questions (disturbing the baby); ignoring my hand gestures for them to be quiet (disturbing the baby); necessitating a need for me to speak and remind them to be quiet (disturbing the baby). All of which of course, disturbed the baby who stopped nursing, sat up, and was ready to play! Hmph.

Me: "You guys, I need your attention because I have something important to say."
[Waited for attention.]

Me: "I'm feeling pretty mad right now. You both agreed to be quiet while I was getting Sean to go to sleep. Then you were both talking loudly and trying to talk to me. I kept waving at you to remind you to be quiet, then I whispered and reminded you to be quiet. You kept talking loudly. Then I spoke louder to remind you to be quiet. Then Sean woke up, because we were all talking and we disturbed him. Now he's awake and I'm upset."

Ryan & Morgan: "Sorry, Mom." "Yeah. Sorry."

Me: "Thanks for telling me you're sorry. That helps me feel a little better. But I'm still feeling mad. We have a problem. I thought we had agreed for everyone to be quiet. But then you guys weren't quiet. What can we do next time this happens?"

Morgan: "We'll be quiet."

Me: "Well I know you will try to be quiet, but I need for something different to happen next time so that Sean will actually get the quiet he needs. Should I take him upstairs maybe and get him back to sleep up in my room instead of the family room?"

Morgan: "Yes."

Ryan: "Well I have an idea. Maybe you could do a signal to tell us to be quiet."

Me: "That's an idea. What if I held up my hand like this [held up hand in HALT position]? Would that let you know what I need?"

Both: "Yes!"

Me: "Well, that's something I think I can do. Let's try it."

[We practiced a couple of times.]

Me: "So is this our agreement? Next time you guys are being loud and I need you to be quiet for Sean, but I can't talk, I'll hold up my hand [ gestured ] like this and you guys will be quiet?"

Both: "Okay, we'll be quiet."

Me: "Okay. Sounds like we have a good plan for next time."

And you know what? Even though I was holding a wide-awake baby while I engaged in this conversation with R & M, and even though I really was very irritated that they had woken up the baby despite our original agreement, the process of talking through this problem and coming up with a solution actually helped my anger dissipate. By the end of it, I wasn't feeling that mad, set Sean down, and went ahead and did something else.

And also--I've held up my hand to both kids several times during the writing of this post (since Sean is asleep on my lap), and they both hushed! It's important to remember that anyone--kids and grownups alike--will be more likely to go along with a plan that they had some input into. I really need to remember that!

We even used our HALT! solution for a related problem that occurred.


Problem: I'm working on my computer (writing the beginning part of this post, when Sean was awake and playing elsewhere) and Ryan wants to tell me everything he knows about cobras. Seriously.

Me: "Ryan, can you stop talking for a second so I can tell you something?"

He paused (but possibly only because he needed air).

Me: "Do you see how I'm sitting here in front of my computer and how my fingers are typing?"

Ryan: "Yes."

Me: "Do you know what I'm doing?"

Ryan: "Well, you're working, aren't you?"

Me: "Yes. I'm working and thinking some thoughts and doing my writing. You want to tell me about cobras, and I'd really like to listen, but when I'm working, I can't really listen all the way. Also, I feel irritated when my work is interrupted. So I have a problem here. Any ideas?"

Ryan: "Well, I can wait to tell you about cobras."

Me: "I appreciate that. I really do want to hear what you have to say. Is there a way I can let you know when you're interrupting me, to let you know that I need you to wait a second for me to finish my thought?"

Ryan: "I know! Why don't you use the same hand thing [does HALT gesture] that you're going to use when we're making too much noise for Sean?"

Me: "Oh, okay! I can do that. I'll hold up my hand like this [demonstrating] and you'll know that you should be quiet until I can pause my writing, right?"

Ryan: "Right."

And that was that!


You know, I learned many of these skills back when I had a real job. I managed people; I worked on product development teams; I facilitated performance improvement teams. These are the same exact skills, only applied in a slightly different context--with my kids. I have to make certain allowances for their ages--the words and ideas they can understand and their emotional maturity level, for example--but other than making my words age-appropriate and having to deal with some inappropriate behavior, I am doing the same thing: I'm speaking respectfully, soliciting their input, restating the problem, restating the agreement.

In situations where I am vested in getting a problem solved (because I'm one of the people who has the problem), it's even more difficult for me to resist the temptation to Parent by
Authority. Because there is a small part of me--it's still there, lurking in my brain--that believes that they are "just children" and they really need to just do what I say already, to obey me.

But when I've parented in that manner: "You need to do XYZ now!" (and I do it still, I'm sorry to say), the problem doesn't really truly get solved. Sure, the kid might scoot and do the thing I need them to, like leave me alone so I can write. But I'm still feeling mad--and now so are they. And really--and this is tough to remember--the child may honestly not have realized they were doing something wrong. So is the problem really solved? Well, kind of. In the short-term. But the "solution" is one-sided, and certainly not ideal.

Or sometimes, the child still won't do what I want and then it becomes a Battle. And if I'm trying to keep Sean asleep, I'm defeated before I've even begun because crying children make a whole bunch more noise than children who want to show me their drawings or talk about cobras. The entire thing devolves into fussing and anger and yelling. And the problem remains.

When I take the time to talk to them about my problems, in the same way I'd talk to Brendan, or the way I insist they talk to each other, then we can usually arrive at some kind of plan for the future, or at least a mutual understanding. Because I have learned that sometimes my assumptions were incorrect. When I give them a chance to tell me what they were thinking or doing and why, I can learn something about that time--and for next time. And vice versa.

When we take the time to talk to each other respectfully (although sometimes somewhat heatedly!), everyone gets an equal chance to say what the problem is. Everyone has a chance to think up solutions. Everyone has a chance to make a plan for what we'll do better next time. We can reach a true, mutually agreed upon, long-term solution. And we can do it as collaborators, not adversaries.

I find that they are much more likely to go along with a plan the participated in creating than one that was dictated to them. And it's easy for me to say "Hey, remember? You agreed to be quieter when I hold up my hand like this." And they whisper "Oh yeah."

Now in order for this problem-solving approach to work, I can't look at the kids as "merely children" who must be corrected or controlled. I have to look at them as whole individual human beings who have valid concerns. Even if I don't necessarily agree with their concerns, I must recognize that they are concerning to the kids, and I need to respect that. When I respect the fact that the kids are individuals, I treat them the same way I'd treat Brendan or my friends.

This doesn't mean that I forget that they are kids--part of keeping Ryan in context means that I am looking at him as an individual human being who happens to be 7 years old. But all too often, I think adults tend to view kids incompletely. They focus only on the child's age. I know--I do it myself. I think: "She's only 4, so I need to make her do XYZ."

Instead, when I remember that the child is more than simply the sum of her years, that she is a human being and therefore:

  • abhors being told what to do;
  • revels when others, especially adults, show her respect as an individual;
  • loves being taken seriously by others (kids and adults);
  • desires to feel efficacious;
  • feels pride in her accomplishments;
  • thrills at being able to accomplish something independently;
  • is still quite young and therefore relies on me for guidance and tips and skills;
  • gets pleasure out of the process of using her mind to solve a problem;
  • that she might make mistakes in judgment;
  • that she might lack knowledge and/or experience that might have led her to a better decision;
  • that she alone thinks her thoughts and feels her emotions;
  • that she wants to be happy, too

--then I know that taking the time to give her tools she can use to solve her own problems (even problems she has with me!) is absolutely the right thing to do.
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