Empowering Kids to Learn Life Lessons
Kids bring their problems to parents. It’s what they do. Kids want solutions and parents have answers. Sometimes this is appropriate. A young child who wants to cut up an apple or a teenager who needs a ride home from an activity should receive help from a parent. When children are young, they need to bring important problems to their parents because they’re not yet mature enough to solve them. But as kids grow older, many problems they bring to their parents represent opportunities to seek solutions by themselves.
Experience is a valuable teacher. It teaches skills such as how to ride a bike, how to find lost shoes, and how to pay for something at the store. Experience teaches children what it feels like to be left out, to win or lose, or to be put on the spot. Experience can teach character qualities such as courage to try new foods, patience with a younger sibling, or perseverance to complete a project. But it’s seldom easy to learn from experiences—particularly, challenging or painful ones.
Unfortunately, though, if parents aren’t careful, they can rob their children of lessons that could be learned from experience because they believe that loving their kids means keeping them from struggles. Parents who continually rescue their children often short-circuit the learning process by intervening too soon.
Sometimes parents can accomplish more by doing less. When kids have to work through their problems on their own, experience becomes the teacher and parents function as the counselors or coaches. Many parents don’t realize the benefit of allowing children to experience the consequences of their actions. Wanting to spare their kids from struggles, these parents step in unnecessarily and rob their children of excellent ways to learn key values, principles, and habits.
Practical Suggestion – Ask Open-ended Questions
A primary tool for helping children to solve problems for themselves is asking open-ended questions, such as “What’s the matter?” “What’s it supposed to look like?” “What are you going to do about it?” Open-ended questions help children learn a process for solving problems, give the responsibility for problems back to the children, and help them grow and mature.
If six-year-old Paul announces at dinner, “I don’t have a fork,” Mom may be tempted to get up and get one for him. But instead of solving this problem for him, she may wisely respond by saying, “I see you have a problem, Paul. What do you think you ought to do about it?”
Some parents feel that just reflecting the problem back to their children isn’t loving. They think, I just couldn’t do that. It doesn’t seem right. Sometimes, though, the loving response is to demonstrate confidence in your child’s ability to solve the problem. Rather than turning their backs and walking away, thoughtful parents can help children evaluate choices, offer suggestions, and give praise for accomplishments. Children grow in confidence as they learn to overcome challenges for themselves.
Paul may decide that a fork isn’t necessary and be content to use a spoon. Then, his mom or dad could praise him for his flexibility. He may get up to get one out of the drawer only to discover that all the forks are gone. After all, solving problems isn’t always easy. He may find a clean one not yet put away or choose to wash a fork that’s dirty. A key is to offer just enough guidance to allow the child to feel the accomplishment of problem solving.
Consider these Ideas
To use open-ended questions effectively, make sure you consider these things. First, use the question to encourage discussion when appropriate. Sometimes some dialogue can help children think for themselves. Also, express sincere empathy when appropriate. This helps children realize that you do care and that you’re not just being apathetic.
Jesus was a master at guiding people in this way. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked the two blind men who were sitting by the roadside (Matt. 20:32). “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say I am?” he asked the disciples (Matt. 16:13, 15). By asking open- ended questions, Jesus often moved to a deeper level with people, helping them to think for themselves.
Of course, Jesus used other tools to help people learn for themselves. Tools like natural consequences and logical consequences are also ways to help children learn from life. You’ll learn more about these and other tools in the book Home Improvement: The Parenting Book You Can Read To Your Kids by Dr. Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller, RN, BSN. It’s now available as an audio book as well as an ebook and paperback.