Letting Kids Solve Their Own Problems

This past weekend, I went to Disney World with my daughters, my Mom, and my Aunt. Overall, it was an amazing trip – we had perfect weather, relatively short wait times, delicious meals, and tons of fun. With the amount of walking and standing in lines we did, the girls impressed me with how little they complained or whined. Dalia sometimes groaned that she was “staaaaaaarving” even after she had eaten like, five minutes before, but we were prepared with lots of snacks, fruit, water, and early dining reservations.



Dancing around in the street…


I posted some pictures to Facebook and Instagram that represented the fun time we had. But like any family on vacation, we faced some challenges, too. I wanted to share one of the struggles we encountered at “The Happiest Place on Earth” and exactly how I handled it.


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One of the souvenirs that Dalia chose was a set of five princess figurines. She and Marissa “made a deal” that Marissa could play with Pocahontas, but then Dalia changed her mind.


Developmentally, it’s normal for kids Dalia’s age (five) to change the rules of a game to fit their needs without taking others’ feelings into consideration. It’s also normal for kids Marissa’s age (nine) to be highly aware and sensitive to issues regarding fairness. Put ‘em together and what’ve you got? (It ain’t bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.)


Marissa became extremely agitated and started arguing with Dalia, “But we made a deal! We made a deal!” Dalia remained firm. The deal was off.


In our home, we have an understanding that if they can’t work out their problems respectfully and on their own, there will be negative consequences for both of them. As the bickering grew louder and more aggressive, I calmly let them know that if they couldn’t work together to figure out a solution, I would take the toys away for an entire day.


Marissa seemed stuck. She just kept saying: “A deal’s a deal! You made a deal!”


Finally, I offered some support. I pointed out to her that repeating the same thing over and over wasn’t getting her the result she wanted. I suggested that she do something different.


Luckily, the girls both attend a FranklinCovey Leader in Me School. Based on Stephen Covey’s best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the Leader in Me program integrates leadership skills into the school curriculum. The philosophy is that kids should be taught skills to achieve success in all areas of their lives, not just in academics. One of the habits, called “Win-win,” teaches how to think cooperatively, rather than competitively, and to see things from another’s point of view. I had no idea whether they would work it out, but I let them know I believed in their ability to do so without my intervention. I said, “I trust you two can work this out using your 7 Habits.”


I could see Marissa reviewing each of the habits in her mind before she finally said, “Think win-win. Ok, Dalia. What do you want? I’ll let you choose every song on the radio and every show on TV. You can have all the other characters if I can have Pocahontas for two hours.”


My Mom and I talked as they continued their negotiations. Eventually, Marissa said, “Mommy! We worked it out! She’s going to let me play with Pocahontas for two hours and I’m going to draw a picture of Pocahontas for her with a sunset in the background.”


Although I was delighted that they came to an agreement, I think my response was something like, “Uh…ok. You do realize that every time she asks you to draw something for her, she complains that she doesn’t like it and you both end up crying, right?”


The girls looked blankly at each other. Then Dalia suggested that Marissa draw in pencil so she could erase something if she didn’t like it. They both agreed that Marissa would draw Pocahontas in pencil and the sunset in color.


This whole process from start to finish lasted about 15 to 20 minutes. But they did it! They worked it out themselves!



Driving on the Speedway selfie



The point of this story isn’t that your kids need to attend a school with a Leader in Me program. (You’re perfectly capable of teaching them the 7 Habits or any other skills that you value.) It’s that when you’re too quick to intervene, you rob your children of the experience of learning how to solve problems by themselves.


Letting kids solve their own problems requires patience and faith. And of course, there are times when adult intervention is required to protect someone’s safety or to guide a child toward a resolution. But keep in mind that whether it’s allowing them to button their own shirts, measure flour, or finish their homework — practice is necessary for developing competence and independence so they can grow into self-sufficient adults.


In the comments below, let us know how you plan to empower your kids in the coming week to solve their own problems. When can you take a step back when you usually rush to step in?


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Showing 4 comments
  • Pam Howard

    Kelly – It looks like there might actually be a Leader in Me school in Madrid! Check out this map http://www.theleaderinme.org/map/ and see!

  • Kelly Pietrangeli

    i loved this story and how, by giving your girls that prompt and some space, they figured out their own win-win!

    My teen is reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers. We live in Madrid so I’m jealous that you have such an amazing, hands on resource over there! Your girls are so fortunate. 🙂

  • Tippy

    This is a great article and example! Thank you! I’ve been attempting to use the ‘work it out yourselves’ with my two step-sons (6 & 3.5) but the older one usually ends up bullying the younger one to get his way & then the water works start. I plan on sharing this with my husband so we can implement this as a team! 🙂
    Glad you had a great family trip!

    • Pam Howard

      Glad you found this helpful, Tippy! Be sure that before telling your stepkids to “work it out themselves” you’ve trained them on how to do it. Many adults assume that kids know what to do, but they first need us to show them. Role play, give them the exact language you’d like them to use, etc. Let me know how it goes! xoxo

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