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Mama Drama: Stop Refereeing and Turn Your Kids into Solution Finders

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Dear Mama Drama:

I have two boys ages 4 and 7. They struggle to solve problems between themselves when they are playing and my husband and I often feel like referees. I’d like them to be able to handle play situations better, but am not sure where to start. Help!

~Stumped Mama

(photo credit)

Dear Stumped:

While some people are natural problem solvers, most children need to be taught strategies to work out their differences. Your boys are fairly young, so still need lots of direct teaching and modeling of problem solving skills as well as adult supervision to support them.

Be a loud thinker.  I heard Dr. Charles Fay say this on one of his entertaining and informative CDs and I wholeheartedly agree. As adults we solve problems all day long in our head. However, unless we are loud thinkers, our kids have no idea that we are doing so. They just see that we always have the answers, which can be daunting for a little person. So talk out loud about the little problems you solve throughout the day.

Teach problem solving strategies. Sharing sounds simple, but there are many versions of what it can look like. Sharing can mean taking turns, including using a timer, or playing with the same materials together.  It can also mean I use it today and you use it tomorrow.  Another creative and effective strategy is trading one toy or material for another.

Listen more, talk less. When Mom and Dad have all the answers, kids don’t learn to think. Start problem solving by having each child briefly state what the problem is. Teaching them to listen to each other without arguing is a big part of this. Sometimes you need to get the background to the situation. A good question for this is, “what happened right before that?”

Brainstorm solutions. Before telling them your solution ideas, ask the kids how they think the problem can be solved. Talk out their ideas weighing the pros and cons how the solutions might work. Help them decide what to try and evaluate how it worked afterwards.

Encourage polite language. Simple manners such as please and thank you can go a long way toward getting your brother to let you have that toy you want.  🙂

Keep problems small. If you stay nearby when your boys are playing, you can step in to support them when you hear the tension begin to rise. After some practice and successes, you can begin to use a cue to prompt them to problem solve and wait a bit longer before stepping in to see how they handle the situation.

Practice, practice, practice. Problem solving skills become easier to use the more we practice. Get your boys involved in solving everyday problems you encounter together and they will be much more confident in their ability to be solution finders.

Please share your sibling problem solving strategies!

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to, and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Read more of Lisa’s parenting perspective at her Laughing Yoga Mama blog.

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson January 6, 2012

    I so needed this. I’m too quick to jump in to resolve conflict and this is a reminder my kids are at the age they should be starting to learn the tools for themselves.

  • comment avatar Lori Lavender Luz January 6, 2012

    I’ve read the L&L books and taken a workshop or two, but this refresher is fantastic! Especially thinking out loud and talking less/listening more.

    Great advice, Lisa!

  • comment avatar Lisa January 6, 2012

    Glad to help out, Ladies. Writing these always reminds me of things I need to work on, too!!! 🙂

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