I've stopped offering my kids advice, and ask this one question instead

Carolyn Tate
Carolyn Tate Photo: Supplied

As a mother of three children, ranging in age from 16 down to eight, I get to hear my fair share of kid problems.

Whether it's someone being mean at school, a bad haircut, subject selection issues, or just a lost shoe – they are all brought to me by someone distraught and concerned, and unable to figure out what to do. 

It's easy to become intoxicated by problem-solving stuff like this (except for the lost shoe – I mean, where do they go? How does this even happen?). I've been around for a quite a few decades now, and I'm pretty good at solving kid-level problems.

Jumping in and solving my children's problems has been my go-to for a long time. It's quick, it's easy, it gets the job done and – I have to admit – it makes me feel wise and awesome to know all the answers.

Like the Incredible Hulk crushing a tiny rock. 

Especially when I have no clue what I'm doing when it comes to my own problems, knowing the answers for my children feels great.

But once I started to notice I was hearing the same problems over and over again, I had an a-ha moment. I realised I wasn't actually teaching my kids anything useful – except to bring all their hard stuff to me. I was basically just making more work for myself, and as wise as that makes me feel, my ego doesn't really need that much stroking.  

So I decided to try something new – something that would take my children off auto-pilot and get them to flex their problem-solving muscles.

When they would come to me with a problem to solve, I would listen intently as they laid out the issue, and then ask a few questions to flesh out the detail.

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Then I would simply ask them: "What do you think you should do?"

At first, the question was met with a few confused and mumbled "I don't knows", but after some gentle prodding and some strategic question-asking, we've managed to find a new way forward. A way for my children to own their problems and take responsibility for solving them. 

The thing is, children are constantly problem-solving and trying things out to see if they work. How loud can I scream? How far will this water gun squirt? What will happen if I jump off my drawers into my bunk bed?  Life is like one giant experiment when you're young, because you've never done any of this stuff before.

So when we come in and take over for them, we're stifling their ability to experiment and learn from their wins and their losses. Sure, we save them from some pain, but how will they know what to do next time? 

So now when I ask my kids what they think they should do, it opens a discussion where we can workshop their ideas, have a brainstorm of options, and they can come up with something to try.

Sometimes their ideas are pretty good, and sometimes they're awful. When awful ideas arise, I'll ask some questions about why they think that's the best way forward and, if it doesn't put them in any danger and they're committed to it, I'll step back and leave them to it. 

Because, let's face it, those are probably the moments they'll learn most from. Or, heaven forbid, I might be wrong and their idea might be amazing.

Either way, my children's choices have become their own and I've noticed a new confidence creep in with them, as well as a willingness to own their own consequences, without blaming anyone else. 

The idea of having my children come to me forever with every problem they'll ever have is my idea of hell, but this approach to problem-solving is about so much more than buying myself some peace.

It's about raising people who can think for themselves and confidently contribute to society and those around them.

I think we're on the right path.