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Raising a Thinking Child

How To Teach Your Child To Think For Himself

Have you ever heard:

"I had it first!"

"No, I had it first!"

And mom says: "Now look, I can't help you if you don't tell me who really had it first."

She'll never know.

Mom continues: "If you two grab like that, you won't have any friends and you'll break toys and mommy will be mad and you'll both end up in your rooms."

Let's try this again, a problem solving way.

Now, mom says: "Robert, how do you feel when Debbie grabs things from you?"

Robert: "Mad."

Mom: "Debbie, how you feel now?"

Debbie: "Mad."

Mom: "Grabbing is one way to get your toy back. What happens when you grab toys?"

Both kids: "We fight."

Mom then asks: "Can either of you think of a different way so you won't fight?"

Robert: "I can show her how to play with it."

Debbie: "We can play together."

A 4- and 6-year-old -- thinking about feelings and how to solve this problem. And mom helping them do that with a few simple questions.

There are lots of ways to change the behavior of children. We can tell them what to do and what not to do, and even explain. But my research colleague, George Spivack, and I have learned in more than 25 years of research that as early as age 4, children can tell us what to do and what not to do and why -- if they have the skills and the freedom to do that. If we've told a child 1000 times what to do by age four, will the thousand and first time make a difference?

Sarah, a 4 year old I observed, consistently asked her mother to read her a story right while she was trying to make dinner. Her mom, having learned the problem-solving way, simply said, "I'm making dinner now. Can I make dinner and read you a story at the same time?" After Sarah smiled and admitted that she couldn't, her mother then asked, "Can you think of something different to do now?" Sarah thought for a moment (an important step in itself), then said, "I'll look at a book." Had her mother suggested, "Why don't you look at a book," would she have? We have learned that children are much more likely to carry out an idea when they think of it than when they are told what to do, or even explained the reasons why.

Parents often ask if they, by letting their children think for themselves, will lose control. In the long run, children learn to think through a solution to a problem, decide whether it is a good idea or not, consider their own and others' feelings, and in the end, will likely decide on a solution that has less negative consequences for themselves and others. When a 5 year old told me that he feels sad when he hurts his brother, that is what the problem solving approach is all about. He will soon stop hurting his brother because he fears being punished. And fear of punishment may only make the child feel helpless, and angry, and possibly even lead to taking those emotions out on safer objects, like other children. And when children are carrying on with a temper tantrum, or continue to do what we do not want them to do, who is really in control, anyway?

While problem solving with your child is not a cookbook, there are five basic questions that you can ask when a problem does come up.


  1. What happened? What's the matter?
  2. How did (your friend) feel when you ______?
  3. What happened next? What did s/he do or say?
  4. How did you feel when that happened?
  5. Can you think of a different way to solve your problem?

Problems between you and your child can be handled in similar ways. For example, a child who leaves skates in the middle of the room can be asked, "Is this a good place for your skates?" "What might happen if you leave them here?" "Can you think of a different place to put your skates so that won't happen?" Again, guide your child to think of the consequences that someone might get hurt, not just that s/he might get punished and yelled at.

We have learned that parents who use the problem solving approach have children who are less aggressive, less likely to fly off the handle when things don't go their way, are less impatient, and also less inhibited. In learning how to resolve everyday conflicts, they feel better about themselves, and they also get along better with others.

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