National Edition

Let go so kids can figure out how to solve problems

Published: Friday, Oct. 4 2013 12:45 p.m. MDT

Kelly Burton tastes the pumpkin while making pumpkin pie from scratch as 3-year-old Logan scoops it out with brother Porter (6) and sister Mykenzie (8) on Sept. 25. Mary looks on with 2-month-old Raiger.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

This story corresponds with an article posted on Oct. 3rd, School program tackles hard task of figuring things out.

MIDVALE — Mykenzie and Porter are "hugging it out," and at first it doesn't make either very happy. The sister and brother, ages 8 and 6, were fighting until their mom told them they'd have to "hug each other until you feel the love."

So they stand there for a bit, stiff and unhappy. But sure enough, after a few minutes, they start to relax, then giggle, then they're free to go.

It's one of the strategies that Mary and Kelly Burton have developed to help their four children solve problems.

Today, it was fighting. While hugging it out is mom's and dad's solution, the kids are working through the value, too. They have figured out they can skip it by getting along. Problem solved.

Experts say one area they see children struggle most is a serious inability to solve problems — even seemingly simple ones. Many children have become dependent on mom and dad, but instead of making their lives simpler, it has become harder. Kids who turn to adults for help with everything from sibling rivalry to homework, what to wear and how to end arguments may grow into incompetent, indecisive adults. The good news is parents can learn to empower their children with strong problem-solving skills.

Learned skill

"It's easiest if kids learn to solve their problems all along the way," said Dr. Tim Jordan, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician in Chesterfield, Mo., who wrote "Sleeping Beauties, Awakened Women." "Because parents are micromanaging their kids' lives, we have young people going off to college unable to take care of themselves. They're texting home 10 times a day, unable to solve basic problems."

Mary Burton doesn't want to handicap her children by over-parenting. "We're trying to teach them to take care of things on their own before they come get mom. If someone is in trouble, come get me first. Otherwise, talk it out and try to figure out how to fix the problem."

If that doesn't work, she's ready to help her kids talk their way through strategies, she said. Even Logan, 3, is told "use your words" and work things out.

The adult Burtons regularly discuss the kids' struggles and how to handle them. Sometimes that means not helping and letting them figure things out, she said. They back each other up and strive to be consistent.

When Jill Wiseman's daughter Juliette, a high school freshman, faces a problem, the New York City mom encourages her to come up with five questions that will allow her to understand and control the situation. The questions, of course, vary. Finding five that are relevant gives the girl a chance to pause and consider.

"Problem-solving is taking a deep breath, taking a step back and deciding on the actions she needs to take. It helps her arrive at a solution," said Wiseman, who works in marketing. A homework assignment might prompt questions that address what she knows about it, her level of understanding and when it's due. She collects thoughts and sometimes materials, then tackles the task.

Psychologist Carolyn Daitch, director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders near Detroit, believes many parents take over too many responsibilities for children, unsure "how much to be in their business and how much to be out. They are not letting kids figure out things on their own."

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