How to Get Kids to Solve Their Own Problems

Dear Kid Whisperer,
I am the mother of four kids: two boys and two girls. I don’t know what is going on, but for the last month or so, they have been testing my patience by becoming really helpless and needy. Three of the four have become less mature this summer. They can’t do anything for themselves. I am tired of doing things for them. If I refuse, they whine and I end up doing whatever it is for them. My boys keep wanting me to settle their constant disagreements. I reached my limit last night when my eight year old suddenly lost the ability to wash her own hair. I need help. -Molly S.


It sounds like you have a lot of problems! It also sounds like your kids don’t have any problems since they have become very adept at handing them off to you. Put another way, you have been effectively trained by your kids to accept and fix all of the problems that happen in their little worlds. Yikes. Don’t feel too badly about it. I used to be the same way. While in my classroom, my students led a stress-free life, for they knew that Mr. Ervin would always be there to solve all of their problems!

“Mr. Ervin! I need a pencil!”
“Mr. Ervin!! He’s LOOKING at me!”
“Mr. Ervin!!! I can’t read this! It’s too hard!!!!!”
Etc. etc. etc. etc.

How exciting it must have been to watch Mr. Ervin bouncing back and forth from problem to problem. In my first few years of teaching, I probably broke the world record for student problems solved. There was only one tiny problem: I DIDN’T HAVE TIME TO TEACH ANYONE ANYTHING!!
What’s worse, by solving their problems, I was sending two unhealthy messages to my students:

a) You are too helpless and stupid to solve your own problems, and
b) There will always be someone more capable than you available to make sure your life runs smoothly.

Clearly, I was not preparing them for real life. I was fooling kids into thinking life was one way while it really was another. Sort of a mean trick, really. However, since learning the Love and Logic® skill of guiding kids to solve their own problems, I give kids two healthy messages:
a) You are smart enough to figure this out, and
b) Good luck with that!

I want my students, when they get out into the real world to think to themselves, “Hey, I remember this! This is just like Mr. Ervin’s class!”

So here’s the Love and Logic(R) solution. Here’s how I went from losing my mind and having a dysfunctional life to loving my job and having energy left over at the end of the day. Fo example, let’s take kids always asking me for pencils whenever they would lose them. Like I’ve already mentioned, I used to busy myself by replacing kids’ pencils. I felt that I was spending as much time with pencil maintenance then I was spending teaching. So instead of solving the problem, I would guide my students to solve their own problem, the Love and Logic way! It would go like this:

Kid: Ahh! Tragedy has occured! I don’t know where my pencil is! I lost it!

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. What are you going to do?

… and scene.

That’s it. That is all I say for 90% of kids who lose their pencils. It is absolutely amazing how quickly pencils appear when kids know that no pencil angels (PAs) will be swooping down to bestow new pencils upon irresponsible students. Students, no matter what the age, figure out ways to find pencils when they know that they have to.

If, and only if I have time, I will continue to guide the child to solve their problem if they haven’t found a pencil.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. You still don’t have a pencil. Would you like to know what some other kids have tried?

Kid: Uh, okay.

Kid Whisperer: Some kids try staring off into space with their mouths open. How would that work for you?

Kid: That’s what I’ve been trying. It doesn’t work.

Kid Whisperer: Oh. Well, some kids ask their friends if they have an extra pencil. How would that work for you?

Kid: I don’t like talking to others.

Kid Whisperer: Oh. I see. Some kids look around the room to see if they can find a pencil on the ground. How would that work for you?

Kid: Oh, alright…. Hey, there is a pencil right under my desk. It looks just like the one I lost.

When I tell this story while consulting at schools, I invariably get asked what happens when a kid can’t find a pencil. My answer is that they may not be able to do their work for a while. It’s more important that a child learn to be responsible than it is for them to do one math assignment. By the way, are they still responsible for that math grade? You bet.

By the way, having an extra pencil laying on a shelf to be found, if necessary, can be a way to make sure students can always solve their own problem.

Molly, since you have made a habit of solving your kids’ problems, when you don’t, they will look at you as if you have nine heads. This is good!!!! If your kids think you’re nuts, they are significantly less likely to mess with you!

Here’s how you could guide your kids to solve their problems the Love and Logic way.

Open mouthed, exasperated, ready to be horribly whiny and annoying, your son comes to you.

Bobby: Mom, I’m trying to watch TV and Damien won’t stop bugging me!!!

You: Oh man, what are you going to do?

Bobby: (stunned) I’m… telling… you.

You: Oh. Thanks for sharing, but I only solve my own problems.

Bobby: (even more stunned) Well, uhhhh…

Mom: Would you like to know what some other kids have tried?

Bobby: I guess so.

Mom: Some kids decide to scream and yell and stomp their feet. How would that work out for you?

Bobby: (with a sort of confused chuckle) Not good.

Mom: Oh, okay. Some kids ignore their annoying brothers. How would that work out for you?

Bobby: I tried that. It doesn’t work. He’s really annoying!

Mom: Oh, man. I hear that. Well, some kids walk away and play in their rooms until their annoying brothers get distracted and start doing something else. How would that work out for you?

Bobby: Fine, I guess.

Mom: Good luck!

The only time we solve a child’s problem is when not doing so is likely to cause lasting physical harm. For instance, if your child is using the barrier wall at the polar bear enclosure as a tightrope, just pull the child off the wall and ask him what he thinks he is doing with a forceful voice. If anger is ever helpful and appropriate, it is when you use it when your child has just almost killed himself by doing something hazardous.

Molly, I hope this helps you. Remember, as the parent, it is your job to train your kids. When they start to train you, it’s time to change direction. I hope I have been able to help you to do that.

-The Kid Whisperer