How to Raise an Independent Problem Solver

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“Whenever he encounters something hard, he cries. He’s perfectly capable of solving problems, he just won’t.”

I hear some version of this often. Sometimes it’s a six-year-old who just won’t tie his shoes, other times it’s a preschooler who can’t seem to finish a puzzle. Ever.

It’s hard to watch kids struggle with difficult tasks, and often parents jump in to help in an effort to avoid unnecessary stress for the child.

While these examples might seem like small problems to solve (and possibly even time limited), they are still problems in the eyes of the child. For a child to develop independent problem solving skills, the kind you hope he’ll use on the playground or in the classroom, he has to practice from the very beginning.

I remember watching my daughter attempt to conquer a shape-sorting box when she was a toddler. She jammed a square block into a round hole so many times that making the banging sound became the new game. Days later, she tried again and found the correct square hole to get the shape into the box. That time, she slowed down and reviewed each opening carefully, trying to make sense of the problem. Left to solve the problem on her own, she first made a musical instrument and then revisited the problem with a new solution a few days later. 

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Believe it or not, these toddler sized problems and solutions are the foundation of early problem solving skills. They might cry. They might abandon the project for a day or two. They might even demand help. If we step back and let them work through the problem, however, they build confidence in their own ability to conquer tough tasks.

The next time you feel the urge to jump in for the save on a difficult task, try these steps, instead:

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How to Raise an Independent Problem Solver

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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