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The Problem-Solving Parent: Teach Your Child Responsibility
By Eleanor Reynolds

Zack, age twelve months, cruises around the living room and finds his favorite item-- the TV remote control. Mother catches him, grabs the remote, and sternly says, "Don't touch!" Zack isn't sure why, but he knows he's done something wrong.Steffie, also twelve months old, finds the remote control. Father notices and says, "Here's how it works," and shows her where to put it away. Steffie is learning the association between the TV and the remote. At eighteen months, Zack loves keys. He tries to take his mother's keys out of her purse or grab his father's keys out of his pocket. He is so persistent that hisparents resort to slapping his hands along with saying, "Don't touch!"

Steffie is also obsessed with keys. Her parents make her a set of nonfunctioning keys to play with and when they go in and out of the house, they say, "Here's how it works." Steffie is allowed to open the doors with real keys. Steffie is learning that locked doors will not open without keys.

As Zack gets older, he gets more of "Don't touch!" and swats for turning on the radio, dialing the telephone, fiddling with the computer, sneaking the scissors from a drawer, and getting into his parents' tools. He's always in trouble.

As Steffie gets older, she has her own inexpensive battery-run radio, she can push the redial button to phone her grandparents, she knows how to play computer games, has her own pair of children's scissors, and is allowed to help her parents use their tools. Steffie can now tell other kids, "Here's how it works." She is rarely in trouble.

A Problem-Solving Environment
Your child's home is a learning environment. It is the place where a child learns to relate to the world, master developmental skills, and exercise self control. To facilitate the learning process, make your home as child-centered as possible. While you don't have to turn your home into a preschool, you might consider eliminating items from the reach of your young child so thatprecious items are not ruined or broken. Create spaces where your child feels free to make messes and play with few restrictions. Teach your child how to put away toys and clean up spills. Then use the remaining areas of your home to help your child use his growing array of skills to interact responsibly with his environment.

Some parents avoid teaching responsibility to young children because it can cause conflict and power struggles. Using a problem-solving approach, however, reduces conflict and provides alternative strategies. Teach yourself to see a negative behavior or situation as a problem to be solved and engage your child in the problem-solving process. Instead of scolding or punishing ask your child, "How can we solve this problem?" Even a toddler can contribute to a solution if she knows you value her ideas. Here's an example of using the problem-solving approach.

Lily is jumping on her parents’ new chair.

Parent's Response:
Lily, we have a problem. You love to jump, but I worry about our new chair getting ruined and you getting hurt. How can we solve the problem?

If Lily is too young to talk, her parent can make some suggestions and watch for Lily's reaction. If Lily makes her own suggestions her parent responds with, "That's an idea," without judgment. The parent may even write down the ideas and discuss them with Lily until they both agree on a solution. Some alternatives might be

  • Lily may use a different chair or jump on pillows placed on the floor;
  • Lily's parents might provide a safe climbing or bouncing toy or an old crib mattress to jump on somewhere in the house; or
  • Lily's parents might agree to take Lily outside when she wants to jump. If Lily "forgets" where to jump, a parent simply leads her to where she has agreed to jump.

You may be thinking that problem-solving approach takes too much time. It's true that problem solving requires your presence, your effort, and your time. Living within our environment and accepting responsibility for our environment is a lifelong process that begins in childhood. Teaching your child to be a responsible inhabitant of his environment may seem like a daunting task, but the rewards are enormous.

Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at problem@blarg.com.