All parents can agree that raising children is no small task. As parents, we are responsible for caring for the precious lives of our children, keeping them safe and healthy, and teaching them right from wrong, then supporting and encouraging them as they learn to be more and more independent. It may start with putting on or picking out their own clothes, or deciding what cereal they want for breakfast. Eventually their independence expands to using the bathroom by themselves, learning to read and write, hanging out with their friends without constant supervision, and driving a car.
A large part of your child’s independence is the ability to take care of themselves and handle almost any situation that comes their way. As children grow and mature, they will encounter more and more situations that require them to solve a problem, determine the best course of action, or to be creative. Hopefully, by the time they are ready to go off to college or join the “real” world, we’ve handled our parental duties sufficiently.
So, how can parents help their children to become problem-solving, independent thinkers by the time they are young adults? By starting when they are young with a few encouraging activities.
Encourage Fun and Creativity
You can find objects around your home and instruct your child to build a particular structure for a specific purpose. For example, give them several styrofoam blocks (or cut a few egg cartons in half), and one egg. Tell your child, or children, to build a structure that will protect the egg from breaking. Once they have completed their building project, make at least three different attempts to knock down the building and break the egg. You could forcefully roll a basketball or large toy car or truck into it, drop a book or empty plastic container on it, or knock a golf ball into it. If you are hard pressed to come up with ideas on your own, or run out of them, there are always books you can get at the library that have fun ideas for scientific experiments and other activities that can be done at home. There are also websites that specialize in activities that get your kids thinking.
Encourage Independent Problem-solving
All parents have witnessed their child get frustrated when they can’t find their favorite toy. First get them to calm down (taking a few deep breaths works pretty well) and then have them start at the beginning. Ask pointed and specific questions to get them focused on getting to the solution rather than continuing to fixate on the problem. Ask questions such as, “Where was the last place you had it?” Help them to retrace their steps. If the cause of frustration is a math problem for your school-aged child, have them re-read the word problem out loud and then ask questions in order to pull out the necessary information. Many times clarity, and the answer, comes just from hearing and understanding the word problem.
You can also create problem solving scenarios with everyday tasks. For example, when teaching your child to make their bed, ask sequential questions like, “What should you do first?” Even if they don’t have the right answer (like pull up the top sheet), encourage them to try it their way to determine if they are correct. If they are not, then have them try again. Another idea is when they finish with a task, ask follow up questions like, “What was the first thing you did?” and, “Was there anything you could have done differently?” By asking follow up questions your child is able to completely think through the steps he or she took to get to the solution and evaluate how well it worked. Eventually, your child will begin working through problems on their own.
Encourage Seeking Multiple Answers
This picks up right where independent problem-solving left off. Sometimes questions have multiple answers. Many times children learn one way of doing something and they think that is the only way. Exposing your child to thinking outside of their limited box, or taking a different path to get to the same solution, is a great way for children to understand this concept. For example, put several different coins into a pile and ask your child to separate out $0.25. Once they accomplish that, ask them to find another coin combination to get the same answer. If they get stuck, show them another combination. You can do this several times and for several different amounts.
Creative thinking, independent problem-solving, and seeking multiple answers are not just for dealing with finding something or solving a hard homework problem. It can also be applied to everyday life situations and behaviors. As parents we tend to tell our children different ways of handling things, such as instructing them not to whine the next time they want something or to put their dirty uniform in the hamper so it will be clean for the next practice. The next time you find yourself in the middle of a teachable moment, ask your child how they think it should be handled. Let them try to come up with the solution, if not multiple solutions, and go from there. The more you encourage them to be independent thinkers now, the more equipped they will be to handle what comes their way in the future.