Raising Kids Who Are Critical Thinkers and Problem Solvers

Raising Kids Who Are Critical Thinkers and Problem Solvers

Which parenting techniques help children become critical thinkers and responsible citizens, let’s take a closer look.

Not too long ago, I was walking and juggling overflowing baskets of laundry, when my seven year old said: “Mom. I made a mistake”. As the word mistake echoed around the two of us, I stopped walking. I looked at my son, noticing his face scrunched up in concentration. Curious about this mistake I sat down with him.

Shoulder to shoulder with my son I said  “I’m listening.”

“Well, I’m still thinking.” He replied.

In that moment, I so wanted to spring up and tackle the never ending laundry. But I stopped my own hurry and said “Ok. I’ll keep you company while you think.” And then I waited.

I waited because I hoped that with some time and patience, my son would figure out what to do about this mistake he was still thinking about.

Time and patience are two tools for teaching responsibility that we parents often forget to use. 

Armed with nothing but good intentions to teach our children important lessons, like responsibility and the “consequences of their actions” we parents (myself included) can be quick to jump into fixing, questioning and lecturing.  Alarm bells ring in our brains when children make mistakes or misbehave:

What were you thinking…Don’t you know better…Are you kidding me…Your choices have consequences you know!!!!

But time and patience, a willingness to just be present with our children is so often much better than any lectures, consequences or punishments.

How Children Learn Responsibility

The word Responsibility breaks down beautifully into two words: Response & Ability*

(*response-ability” – the ability to choose your response. – Steven Covey)

How much a child feels ready and able to respond to her circumstances is what will help her grow in a responsible way.

When children learn how to respond to a variety of circumstances that come up in real life, like dealing with mistakes, they are actively developing responsibility. And as we gift our children our time and patience, we cultivate in our children trust and capability.

But what about consequences you may be thinking…don’t children need to know the consequences to their actions? While many actions have consequences, by focusing on imposed consequences we often steal away the very opportunity to teach our children what responsibility really is all about.

Helping children explore the consequences of their choices is much different from imposing consequences on them. – Jane Nelsen D.Ed. author of the bestselling Positive Discipline Series.

Responsibility can’t come from imposed consequences: 

  • Standing in the corner for spilling milk doesn’t help a child learn to pour well or how to clean up messes.
  • Wearing a shaming sign for cheating on a test, doesn’t teach a child how to prioritize studying. Or why education is valuable. It doesn’t teach that it is safe to ask for help when they are struggling.
  • Not playing video games for hitting a sibling doesn’t teach a child how to express his jealously, frustration or annoyances in a constructive way.

Raising responsible kids has very little to do with finding the right consequences. And everything to do with encouraging children to participate, to be problem solvers, critical thinkers and capable beings. Ones capable of accepting their circumstances, capable of looking for solutions and capable of telling the truth. Even when they make big mistakes.

Instead of focusing on consequences, teaching Response+ Ability….may start with us saying: 

  • “I see markers on the wall. Let’s go get some soap and a sponge to clean this up together.” And following up with “Next time you want to color, you can find paper right here in this drawer.”
  • “Let’s dry up this water with some towels” And following up with an opportunity to practice and learn  “Here, why don’t you pour me a glass and yourself another glass.”
  • “Looks like this broke. Too bad. The good news is, we can glue this back together.” And following up with “If you would like to see something from one of these shelves, I’d like you to ask me first.”

Eventually these moments can turn into our children feeling able to respond = responsible: 

  • “I spilled water. I’ll get a towel!”
  • “Ooops, sorry I broke that. Can I help you glue it?”
  • “I made a mistake. And I think with a bit of help, I can fix it!”

A calm response to mishaps, mistakes and misbehaviors, one that focuses on repair and capability, wires our children to weather much bigger storms as they grow too. That is called resiliency. Resilient children know that they have resources they can use to overcome all sorts of mistakes.  

Remember that mistake my son wanted to tell me about?  The mistake was a broken bed! His sister’s mattress frame (yikes!) And after we sat together for a few minutes he told me how it happened. He had a plan to apologize to his siter and then he explained several possible fixes:

  • Bella can sleep on my bed, and I will sleep on the broken one.
  • We can drive to the store and get a replacement slat, if you have time today or another day.
  • I have some allowance saved up and I will pay for the new bed slats and help put it back into the right place.
  • If papa let’s me borrow some tools, I can try to fix it. Duck tape might work until we get a replacement!

These were his own solutions. Solutions that came from taking responsibility for his actions. I didn’t need to tell him it was wrong to break the bed. Or that there are consequences to his actions.  He already knew that. He accepted responsibility. He thought about solutions. I’m quite sure that me imposing consequences would have not added anything helpful to his learning process.

Mistakes and misbehavior that at first glance may seem like the very moments to impose consequences are often the exact opportunities for us parents to give our children some time and patience. And in this case, an excellent excuse for me to ignore laundry for just a while longer 😉

So what do you think, is it possible to foster responsibility without imposing consequences?

Peace & Be Well,

–Related reading

Raising Problem Solvers The One Question to Ask Before Helping Your Child By Alissa Marquess @Creative with Kids

Eight Ways to Deal with Anger as a Parent by Kristina B. @Toddler Approved

How To Be an Empathetic Parent, Even When it Feels Hard by Andrea Nair

The following two tabs change content below.
Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, and one cuddly dog.

8 Responses to Raising Kids Who Are Critical Thinkers and Problem Solvers

  1. This resonates with me in regards to my 6.5 year old son. He struggles mightily to express his frustration, impatience, and difference of opinion with his sister often. And sometimes what comes out is aggressive screaming or pushing. I struggle to help him see the consequences of choosing the aggressive option instead of the expressive option while also being sure to protect my daughter. AND I want so badly for him to see the way to repair and take responsibility for the hurt it causes by apologizing or at least acknowledging what happened. Any suggestions??????

  2. Hi Abigail,
    Thank you so much for sharing your questions. Learning to express frustration and impatience takes a lot of practice. In fact a lot of adults still struggle with this a great deal. A very helpful way to work on this is to teach your child calming techniques like breathing, counting, scrunching paper and taking a personal positive time out (that’s making a choice to go calm down…not being sent away) A powerful way children learn this is when we model it. If it feels right for you, you can model this the next time you feel frustrated. Voice your frustrations which might sound like “I feel so frustrated right now! Things are not going the way I wish they would!! I need to take some deep breaths!” And each time you model this, the more your child is going to see, hear and take in what it’s like to be frustrated and how to manage it. This is part of “emotion coaching” and it’s such a valuable tool in parenting. As far as teaching him to make amends, again modeling and practice are key. If your son makes a mistake or misbehaves, take some time to brainstorm what he is going to do about it to fix it but allow him time – even overnight or until the end of the week!! The lesson ins’t lost as long as you make sure to follow up (in a kind and clear way). What do you think?

  3. What do I do when my 9 year old won’t do her chores? She refuses to do them, and I don’t know what to do. We’ve explained being part of a family means helping out, we’ve tried allowing them to choose some of their chores (although some are assigned). I just don’t know what else to try. Like you said, consequences don’t work, but I feel so lost.

  4. Krista,
    Every child has within them motivation to do things when they feel well, capable and trusted. What motivates each child may vary, but I often find that parents that aim to find that special something their child really loves have less struggles. Another barrier to doing chores is that children often feel overwhelmed and in this case it’s helpful to do chores together. Taking a “doing WITH” attitude over a “expect this to be done” attitude often helps children learn to love helping out. Even if chores are assigned or expected – inviting a child to share how / when they will get it done can be helpful. Returning some decision making power to the child can bring amazing change. So in what ways can you motivate and encourage your 9 year old? What are they interested in doing? And how can your child see the value in their contributions? I hope that helps.

  5. This was very helpful – we are struggling with the very same thing here now with my 4yr old being rough or hitting our 1.5yr old (sometimes out of frustration, others out of jealousy)

    One thing I was hoping for as a read this article was suggestions on positive ways to handle the 2 examples below that you noted:
    – Wearing a shaming sign for cheating on a test, doesn’t teach a child how to prioritize studying. Or why education is valuable. It doesn’t teach that it is safe and helpful to ask for help when they are struggling at school.
    – Not playing video games for hitting a sibling doesn’t teach a child how to express his jealously, frustration or annoyances in a constructive way.

    While I find it easier to discuss and implement natural consequences or fixes to things like spilled milk or broken toys, it is much harder to see a positive way to handle the above situations.

    Thank you!

  6. I have 8 kids, and the fourth is about to graduate from high school. My youngest is 7yrs. old. The biggest key for me in learning how to teach responsibility was to make chores a team effort (everybody has a part in the same chore, like, one clears the table, one rinses dishes, one loads in dishwasher, one unloads dishwasher, etc.) Even a toddler, barely walking helps with chores, even if I have to make it up (like washing the appliances with a squirt bottle and washcloth, or wiping off doorknobs with a baby wipe….) Never do for a child what they can do for you, unless it is truly a matter of time or safety.

    Also, I am not patient by nature, but having consequences posted helped my kids AND me to know what to do. My frustration often came out of NOT knowing what to do. By having a poster that stated that disobedience has a specific consequence or defiance another or stealing, lying, etc, another, then I wasn’t so frustrated and I stayed calmer. Because these were posted, the kids knew what to expect, so they were imposed consequences, but became natural to the situation. When possible, the posted consequence was a natural consequence. Like for stealing, they had to pay back double for what they took.

    The most important thing, though, was recognizing when I lost it, gave too harsh a consequence on the fly, etc. So, when I calmed down, I talked it out, and apologized for my part, which modeled how to admit mistakes. Then I had to forgive when they apologized to me, so I could model grace. This taught them more than if I had been a perfect parent. Relationship must always come first, and focusing on that kept me from being too harsh with consequences.

Follow Us

Copyright Notice: It is not permitted to copy, re-blog or distribute contents without prior written permission from the Positive Parenting Connection.