You’re told that your child is failing arithmetic. Do you confront him with accusations of “not trying,” or do you focus on the practical value of arithmetic and specific techniques for understanding it better?


Your child is slow getting ready for church—for the third week in a row. Do you shout, “Hurry up; you’re always late,” as you drag her out the door; or, after you’re back home and things have calmed down, do you initiate a two-way discussion on ways to plan better in advance?

In both cases, of course, the second choice is the better one. It’s also the one that requires more time and effort, which is why so many parents opt for the first approach: complaining and scolding about the problem every time it recurs, hoping their children will eventually get the message and start doing things right. More likely, the kids will get an entirely different message: “That’s the way things are. That’s the way you are. There’s no use trying to make things different, even if you could figure out how.”

In the long run, we waste a lot more time by not taking time to sit down and work out solutions to a recurring problem.

Often, we don’t realize what we’re doing. If we tell the kids to “hurry up” or “study harder” or “get started earlier,” isn’t that focusing on what we want them to do differently—on the solution? Actually, no. The very tone of impatience sends a nonverbal message to focus on the negative, even when our words aren’t accompanied (as they so often are) by a problem-focused statement such as, “Won’t you ever learn?” And it’s unlikely that such a vague statement as “Study harder” will be any real help in forming a mental picture of how to do things differently.


Whether an annoying habit or a one-time incident, a problem is rarely solved until someone decides, “There’s a solution to this somewhere; let’s take time to figure out what it is.”

The best way to do that is to ask focused questions. (Let children answer the questions themselves; they may know the answers better than you think you do, and it pays to learn solution-seeking early.)

What is the problem? Not as silly a question as it sounds; often, the real problem is never put into words, or goes unrecognized beneath superficial symptoms.

What’s the real cause of the problem? Hint: it’s not that the child is “spoiled” or “lazy” or “irresponsible.”

What would the ideal solution look like? Just subtracting unwanted behavior patterns isn’t enough. Be as specific as possible about how things will be better once the solution is implemented.

How can we start on the best solution immediately? Choose a concrete first step and take it.

How will we measure progress toward the solution? Some problems take a while to solve. A measurable approach will keep impatience from creeping in and causing new problems.


Above all else, be clear that the child is not the problem. Treat them from the beginning as agents of the solution.