Whose problem is it anyway?

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

One of the many little posters my parenting instructor used read, “Whose problem is it, anyway?” He tried to teach us to recognize which problems were ours (as parents) and which problems really “belonged” to the children. He reminded us often that if we kept solving problems for our children, they would not learn how to solve problems by themselves. They might even get the idea that they couldn’t solve problems and ask us to solve their problems into adulthood.

This made sense, but didn’t stop me from getting involved in my children’s problems anyway. It is so hard to let kids struggle. I didn’t want their lives to be difficult. I wanted life to be easy and fun for them. I sometimes got too involved and tried to make things easy. That interfered with the kind of learning and growing that comes from making and being able to fix small mistakes. I am writing this in the past tense. But don’t let that fool you. It is just hard to admit that I still interfere.

Some problems are easy for parents to leave with their children. If your child spills his or her milk, it is easy to expect them to get the sponge, or to gently ask, “What needs to happen now?” Some problems are “shared” problems. When toys are left all over the living room floor, or your teenager is playing music so loudly that you cannot think, it is your problem too. There are a lot of other problems that parents get engaged in that really do not belong to them. Here are some basic questions that may help you decide if it is really your problem:

• Is my child developmentally able to perform this skill independently? (Most kindergarteners are not developmentally able to follow through on homework independently. Most third graders are).
• Have I or another responsible adult taken the necessary time for training?
• What is the natural result of me not getting involved in the problem?
• What would my child learn from that natural result?
• Instead of inviting a power struggle around this issue, what can I do that is mutually respectful (to myself and the child)?
• Is there something that I’m afraid of here?
• What is a small step I could take (that I’m comfortable with) to begin to let my child own the problem?

Here are some examples of problems that usually belong to children – and where, even after training we often to take responsibility:

Clean rooms
Making beds
Eating meals
Going to sleep at night
Getting up in the morning

Remember that if we “help” a butterfly in its struggle to release itself from the cocoon – it does not have the muscles it needs to fly. Our children need struggles to build their muscles too.

Challenge for the week: Let go of one problems/challenges that really belongs to your children. Take small steps, take time for training and have patience with your children and yourself as they grow the “muscles” they need.

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