“He hit me!” “She stole my toy!” How often have we heard these statements on the playground, in the car or even in strange places where kids are in separate rooms, not even remotely in the same place? When it comes to children, there is almost as much literal mud slinging, finger pointing and name calling as in any presidential election year.
I won’t lie to you, usually the fastest way of resolution is stepping in as an adult and solving the problem ourselves (“No, Billy, your sister was downstairs, there’s no physical way she could have hit you from 50ft away. Apologize.”) At times, rationalizing with a young child can feel like herding some seriously sassy cats.
As a mental health professional, I truly believe in “choose your battles.” That said, there is a good reason why we have an obligation to our children to teach and assist them in how to problem solve on their own. Kids aren’t born as natural problem solvers or sharers. Why? Their brains! Our brains develop into our 20s. Problem solving, empathy, complex emotions and rational thinking are all skills we develop later on in life- this is why we don’t hold kids to the same standards as adults.
Because kids are more “back brain” based (survival and instinctual parts of our brain) we need to work out their brains like a muscle to engage their “front brain” (reasoning, logic, empathy) so they can begin learning these skills early on. Your kid isn’t going to get it right all the time- when they are arguing with their sibling, for example, they will need a moderator who is willing to take the time to step in and say “okay, both of you are upset. How are you both going to fix this?” Even if you’re met with a blank gaze, it is important to push, “ I’m not always going to be in the room to solve your problems, let’s do this together. I’ll listen and help you guys decide what’s fair.” Chances are your kids will feel much better because they not only got a say, but they were empowered by solving this all on their own!
This same principle can be applied for consequences in asking “since you didn’t do your chores last night like we agreed, what do you think is a fair consequence?” Many parents are pleasantly surprised to find that instead of their child answering “nothing” they are usually happy to be involved in the first place. This also helps engage their problem solving brain parts. The more these parts are used in the brain, the stronger these abilities get. With younger kids, we can tailor these skills to be age appropriate by first giving them options (“which sounds more fair to you, no tablet for the night or more chores tonight?”)
Yes, this takes up more time. This is not because I don’t see that in addition to your 40+ hours of working per week, making dinner, doing laundry and cleaning are going unnoticed. It’s okay if there are nights your kids have fries for dinner or you let your kid go on errands in their favorite Halloween costume in June. In the long run, these are not the things that will alter their future; what will alter their future is their ability to engage with other people from a place of empathy, understanding and knowledge that they will have to solve issues on their own. It is hard to see kids upset, crying or disappointed when there is a quick fix. However, the rewards are much greater when we see our children out on the playground assisting other children during playtime to ensure everyone gets a fair turn, or as young adults having the ability to assert themselves in a productive manner.
And for all those times they are arguing and yelling at each other? Just remember, if Lester Holt could do it, you can do it too!
Alexis has been a part time contributor to the online website Patientworthy which is dedicated to education and awareness of rare and serious diseases. Links to articles written by Alexis: