My then 3-year old son and I were at our favorite family camp one summer. My son loved to play in the woods – grabbing handfuls of red earth, and throwing them up in the air like fireworks. The beautiful color and sound filled him with joy as the dirt rained down over his head and body.
I, on the other hand, felt no joy when he laid his dirt-filled head of hair onto the pillow that night. I told him that if he wanted to play in the dirt, that was fine, but he’d have to take a shower after so that we could get the dirt out of his hair.
Seems like a very logical consequence, right? However, my son hated the shower. He screamed, cried, and hollered the whole time. We both left the bathroom feeling resentful and exhausted. This battle persisted the following night.
On the third night, while walking up the hill to our cabin and dreading another tear-filled shower, I thought to ask him for solutions.
“Hey buddy, I can see that you love playing in the red dirt, and I love seeing how much fun you’re having. The thing is, the dirt gets stuck in your hair and leaves a mess in the bed. You seem to really hate the shower, so what could we do?”
And then, something unexpected happened.
This three-year old child actually offered a reasonable solution. He said, “Mommy the shower hurts my eyes. How about I just lean my head over the sink, put a washcloth over my eyes, and you can wash my hair that way?”
I was so surprised because that idea never occurred to me! As soon as we arrived at our cabin, I washed his hair over the kitchen sink. He smiled throughout! As I dried him off, he looked me in the eye and and gave me a big grin with sparkling eyes. Then he hugged me and said “Mommy, I love you!” He was so proud of himself and I’d never seen him that happy and expressive. For the next year, that became his preferred method for washing his hair.
This story about giving up some parenting responsibility comes from Louann, who recently took my 8-week Parenting with Positive Discipline virtual class. I love this story because it’s a fantastic example of how our children can help solve their own problems – whether they’re behavior problems or any other kind.
Just last night I experienced a heavy upset right alongside my own child’s when he bombed his math test.
As his mother, I don’t want him to hurt, or struggle. I feel depressed when he does. I ache when he aches (and often when he doesn’t).
Immediately I shifted into Problem-Solving Mode, and tried to figure out what I could do to make everything better. It’s my responsibility as a parent, right?
It’s natural to feel these feelings, of course, and it’s not wrong. At the same time, I don’t need to take all the responsibility for solving his problems, nor is it in my child’s best interest for me to do so.
I took a deep breath, empathized, and resisted the urge to fix (super hard for me).
Instead, I asked him what his plan was. And what do you know? He had one.
He said he had already written his teacher to find a time to meet. In addition, he was watching Youtube videos that explained the math concepts he didn’t understand.
When I remember that my children are naturally creative and know themselves better than I do, and I invite them into the problem-solving process (or just let them own it), the solutions are often better than anything I could come up with on my own. (Would I have thought of Youtube? No chance.) Plus, when children participate in solving their own challenges, they’re more likely to own the solution and follow through.
The invitation can be as simple as Louann’s in her story:
- “What can we do?”
- “How could we solve this problem? Any ideas?”
Simply asking the question — even if your child is unable to answer it — lets children know that you believe in their ability to think creatively and solve problems.
So remember that you don’t have to take all the responsibility for your child’s behavior or dilemmas. Share the load with your child. It’s great practice for both of you.
Learn more about joint problem solving and other ways you can help your children become respectful, resourceful, and self-disciplined for the long term at the upcoming live, interactive online class, Peaceful Parents, Cooperative Kids: from conflict and chaos to cooperation and calm in 8 weeks.
The joint problem solving process I teach in this class inspired one participant to write this article, How a Parenting Class Made Me a Better Manager (and Parent).
You may also enjoy this Joyful Courage Parenting Podcast in which I am interviewed about sharing the problem-solving responsibility with children.
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