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Playground Politics

Giving Children Tools to Solve Their Own Problems

Playground politics usually involve a spat among kids that often escalates, but goes unresolved, when adults step in. Here are some tips for helping kids solve their own problems. It’s natural to step in to solve a child’s problem, particularly when they’re young. But to what extent? What happens when we continue to solve problems for children without helping them learn to do it for themselves? 

Your instinct is to step in and solve the problem. “Cameron, Jordan was playing with that square magna tile. You can play with it next.” 

The response is quick and decisive. The children are mollified, and they are safe. That’s all that matters, right? Maybe not.

The Problem

The problem with consistently stepping in and handling conflict for children is that they don’t learn strategies for depending on their own judgment. They don’t learn how to speak up for themselves. It may not seem like that big a deal when they’re little, but if an adult is always there to intervene and solve their problems as kids, how will they develop the confidence to know they even can resolve their own conflicts?

We’re seeing real-time ramifications of this out in the world. Lee is faced with an uncomfortable situation at lacrosse camp. He missed the first couple of practices due to a family emergency so when he starts, the other kids already know each other and have begun to create a bond. They laugh easily with each other and choose Lee last for teams. Lee feels left out. His mom says something to the coach about it at the end of camp one day. A few of the other kids hear and make a joke behind Lee’s back about being a “Mommy’s boy.” Now he feels even more uncomfortable. The next morning, Lee wakes up with a stomachache and asks his mom if he can stay home. “I don’t feel good,” he complains. Lee ends up missing the rest of lacrosse camp.

Penny really likes this boy, Tom, in her class. Tom likes Penny too. They talk at school sometimes, but mostly they text and Snapchat. Weeks go by and the more they get to know each other, the more they realize how much they have in common. Trust is building and they’re both happy. Then one of Penny’s friends tells Penny she saw Tom at the mall with another girl. The friend didn’t know who the girl was but said they laughed a lot and seemed to know each other well. Penny feels uncertain and hurt. Who is this girl? 

The more she thinks about it, the more betrayed she feels. When she sees Tom at lunch, she avoids him and sits in the middle of a group of friends instead of sitting with him. When he texts her, she responds with just a few words. She continues to avoid him in school, and eventually she stops responding to his texts all together, ghosting him.

When you don’t know how to handle a conflict, or don’t feel confident you can figure it out, the problem becomes scary; something to avoid. The thing is, we all know problems don’t just go away. 

The Solution

The Rolling Stones famously sang, “You can’t always get what you want …” True story! In an age of instant gratification, we’re too often bent out of shape if things don’t go our way. But the song doesn’t end there. The next lines are, “But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” Regardless of age, what we all need in times of conflict is resolution of some sort. Moreover, we need to know how to take action towards resolving the conflict in the first place – whether we get what we want or not. 

Don’t mistake me. When children are young, they need help from a trusted adult to take care of their problems. However, it makes sense that adult intervention must evolve over time. We want adult intervention to shift from problem-solver to coach to trusted supporter. After all, raising children to be confident, resilient and independent thinkers and problem-solvers is the goal, isn’t it?

Like most things worth doing, we get the most out of intervening for children when we do it with intent. You may be thinking, “Well of course. I intend to help my child solve his problem.” What if, instead, the thought process was, “I intend to help my child solve his own problem.” There’s just one additional word in that second sentence, but it makes all the difference. The intention has shifted away from you taking action and towards your child taking action.

Remember Cameron and Jordan? Cameron took the last magna tile out of Jordan’s hand just as Jordan was getting ready to use it for his own tower. Instead of telling Cameron to give it back, you could try the following:

You: “Jordan, I see you are upset. What is the problem?” 

Child: “He took my piece!”

You: “What do you want?”

Child: “I want it back!”

You: “What action could you take to help Cameron understand why you want the tile back?”

Jordan could grab the tile back from Cameron. He could explain he was preparing to use it for his tower and ask for it back. There are a variety of outcomes. Your role is to help Jordan identify his problem and find a way to communicate it so he can take action to get what he needs. The point is not whether he gets the magna tile back. The point is that you empowered Jordan to tackle the problem himself.

This example may seem small, but it illustrates how to create a foundation for a more crucial lifelong skill: having difficult conversations to resolve conflict. 

Janey missed a project deadline at school resulting in a failing grade. You could say, “Janey, I’m going to call your teacher to get an extension. Sit down and we’ll do that project together now!” Asking for an extension is a good idea – if Janey is the one who makes the request. The teacher may or may not grant the extension, but one thing is for sure. If she doesn’t ask, the answer is already no. (Side note to state the obvious: if Janey is repeatedly missing deadlines, receiving an extension is an unlikely outcome.)

Speaking up is hard! Coaching Janey ahead of time by role-playing how the conversation could go will help her 1) build the courage to speak to her teacher, 2) articulate why she missed the deadline in the first place, and 3) be prepared to respond appropriately whether her teacher says yes or no to the extension. She may not get what she wants, but you have empowered her to at least take action towards a final solution.

Do you see the pattern? You start off holding children accountable to small actions and slowly build them up to taking bigger actions – on their own. They’re never too old to start! Whether your child is dealing with a friendship issue at school or faced with a greater problem that requires them to take a risk and possibly even fail, creating opportunities to coach them in solving their own problems enables them to communicate and advocate for themselves.

Don’t wait for a problem to arise, practice the following steps when things are going well. Create a possible scenario or review one that has happened in the past and discuss how your child could address it.

By using these steps, you’re strengthening their ability to problem solve in difficult situations because you’re providing repeated examples for your child to archive in their memories for a later date. You’re normalizing having hard conversations and providing strategies to resolve conflict – not avoid it. The result? A child who grows up to be a confident, resilient, and independent thinker and problem solver. That’s a win for everyone!

by Mary Ostrowski

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