While I've tackled many kid-centered topics, like how to save on kids' clothes, should you buy your kid a car, or pay for your child's college, you know what is really important to me? Helping them learn to be responsible and self-sufficient, so they don't need me (except for moral support, of course). So while I often hear that I am a mean mom, and no other kids have to do this, and ALL other kids have that (which sounds a lot like me when I was their age), I have an intentional plan to help my kids become independent.
That intentional plan involves teaching them two skills: to learn to problem-solve and how to negotiate.
Life is full of problems, right? Figuring out how to solve problems is a valuable skill. But how do you pass that one on to your kids, or improve on your own problem-solving skills?
Back when I was teaching, I found it easy to teach subjects that were black and white. What wasn't so easy was the medical ethics class I taught, because things weren't black and white. Sure, there is often an option that's best. But quite frequently, there is no easy solution, even though there is a right solution. Or there is a range of solutions. Or you have to make a decision that isn't agreeable to anyone. The most difficult thing is that students would experience situations that were beyond the pages of a textbook, and there is no way I could have prepared them for every challenge they would face.
To help them solve ethical dilemmas in the future, I taught them to work through ethical issues using a six-step process.
- Identify the problem
- Develop possible solutions
- Discuss good and bad points of each solution (With ethical scenarios, they needed to consider patient rights, our profession's code of ethics, healthcare law, etc. With financial issues, they need to examine the relevant facts.)
- Develop an action plan (or how the solution will be implemented)
- Act on the solution
- Evaluate the results
Real life is also full of challenging decisions, in which there may be several right solutions but only one or two that would be the right one for right now. Or any solution would be extremely challenging. That's why I believe this process can also be used to teach our children (and ourselves) how to problem-solve financial issues.
Currently, my kids don't really have financial problems since they aren't managing much money yet. However, they do experience problems, so my husband and I are trying to help them learn problem-solving skills. That way, when they do have financial questions, they will have problem-solving skills to apply to their financial issues.
So, if they come to us with a problem or question, we try to lead them through a simplified version of the six-step process. We ask them, “What's wrong?” “What do you think should happen, or should have happened?” “What should you do now?” “What will happen if you do that?”
I frequently get impatient, because my kids have a difficult time coming up with possible solutions. I want that toy, so therefore I should get it. They require a lot of coaching to come up with a workable solution; but practice, while it may not make perfect, will definitely improve their skills. And the thing about developing these problem-solving skills when the stakes are “I-don't-want-to-wear-those-pants-to-school” is better than when we're talking about a few thousand dollars of household budget deficit or something.
So, practice. Don't let your kids fear failure. Instead, talk about the ramifications of their decision, and ask if there is a better solution. Ask open-ended questions, and show that, many times, there is more than one way to do things. Most of all, give your child permission to make choices, even bad ones (as long as they remain safe, of course), and then let them suffer the consequences. And that's so hard.
Another tool that I used frequently with my students (and now with my children) is that I share mistakes that I have made. No one is perfect, but we can learn from our mistakes and others can too. And if my kids know that I have made mistakes and survived, I think they will be less likely to be paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong decision in the future.
The biggest thing is that problem-solving is not about memorizing scenarios or following a recipe. You have to think logically and creatively.
Learning to Negotiate
At first glance, my kids don't need any help learning how to negotiate. But I don't want to go to bed now. If I sleep in tomorrow, can I stay up later tonight?
But learning how to negotiate is another great skill … one that I'm not so good at, unfortunately. But in much the same way as problem-solving, we're trying to teach our kids by asking them questions, giving them choices, and helping them see that negotiation is, at its core, a way to resolve conflict. And that's definitely a skill to keep through life.
Again, negotiation requires logical and creative thinking. Most of all, it requires a collaborative approach.
Too often, I pull the parent card and say those words I never thought I would say: “Because I said so.” But when my kids feel they have a voice, that their opinion matters, they usually are more willing to listen.
So we've started using the collaborative approach on things that aren't deal-breakers. For example, our ten-year-old was frequently jumping out of bed at 5:15 am and ready to meet the day (and carry on conversations through our closed bedroom door). Since I prefer that no one even talks to me until 6 am, this was tough for me. Instead of, as Erma Bombeck said, getting varicose veins in my neck from yelling at him, I followed this simplified process.
Why do you get up so early? I'm bored and don't want to stay in my room.
How do I feel when you get up so early? Grumpy?
So can you give me some ideas of how to make you happy and me happy? Let me come out of my bedroom at 5:30? That still feels too early to me. Six? That works. What will you do to not be bored? I can make sure I have some books and toys? Good idea. What happens if you come out earlier? I have to do extra chores? Oooh, I like that. How about one extra chore for every ten minutes you come out early? Um, okay.
Even though I feel more like the winner (I didn't really compromise because he needs to be up at six anyway to get ready for the bus. Shhhhh!), he had to come up with options, and he was proud of himself. Obviously, this can be tailored to any age and any issue. Eventually, I hope I don't need to prompt my kids anymore.
When my kids are ready to move on to adult life, I hope they have plenty of practice of failing in a safe environment when the stakes are lower.
Do you make an effort to teach your kids survival skills?
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).