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Writing the Solution: Helping Kids Think Things Through

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Development & Learning

Your older child or teen is faced with lots of problems requiring solutions. Some of these are interpersonal – disputes with friends, siblings, and teachers – and some of these are situational – how to do something or fix something. Too often kids come to us for “the answer” or expect us to fix things, to intervene, to take their side. This can get tiresome.

Not only that, as a parent, you instinctively know that providing all the answers for your older kids is not a good idea. Independent decision making is a skill worth cultivating. It’s a necessary part of becoming an adult. So it’s a good idea to teach children strategies for effective problem solving.

One excellent strategy is writing things out. The cognitive psychologist Lev Vygotsky said that “writing is thinking” – that writing things down gets thinking going and helps us know what we really think. So the next time your teen or older child wants you to solve a problem for her, try one of these writing tricks.

Pro-Con Solution Comparison. You’ve probably tried this technique yourself. It works best when the question is to do or to not-do or when there’s a clear choice between two options. Suggest your child draw a line down the length of a sheet of paper. If the problem is “should I do” or “should I not-do” he writes ”Do” at the top of the space on one side of the line and “Don’t” at the top of the other. Then he writes down all the reasons to do or not-do that he can think of. (And if the choice is between two options, like “buy a bike” or “save for a car,” then he should put those at the top of the spaces and list supporting reasons for each.) Once the child has listed every reason for one or the other, he can figure out for himself which choice is better.

4-Square Solution Planner. This idea works well when the problem is not a simple choice but an issue that needs resolution. Ask your child to fold a sheet of paper into fourths, making four equal-sized spaces. In the top left space, she writes down the problem, including who or what is involved, when the problem surfaces, and why it’s an issue for her. In the top right space, she lists the possible causes of the problem, including the perspectives of others who may be involved. In the lower left space, she should write possible solutions to the problem, what she can do to make herself more comfortable with the situation or to come to agreement with others. Finally, in the lower right space, she should write a statement of what she is going to try from the solutions she’s come up with and what she expects will happen.

A How-To For Others. Most of us find it’s easier to solve other people’s problems than to solve our own and this technique capitalizes on this. In it, your child imagines that this problem is not his alone but one that is shared by lots of kids his age. He takes on the role of an advice columnist or poster on a how-to website. He starts by writing down an imaginary query from a reader. Then he answers the problem by suggesting steps this imaginary person can take or things the reader should try. I know of one child who was beset with problems from her younger brothers who wrote just this sort of entry for an online wiki and submitted it for posting. Your child can do this too!

A Letter To No One. This last technique involves more actual writing than the others but is a time-tested way for sorting things out. It’s the classic “dear diary” sort of writing essay. Suggest that your child write a letter – one that will never be sent! – to the person who is causing her difficulty or to her grandmother or other advisor, even to God. The idea here is to write and write, about the problem, about her feelings about the problem, and about what she’s already tried to solve the problem. Finally, she should write about what she’s going to try next. This letter is then tucked away in a safe place, to be looked at later.

For each of these methods, there’s a temptation to force the process, making it an assignment instead of a personal quest for ideas. It’s important to let the child do his own thinking. So if your child prefers to dictate his writing to you, make certain you act simply as a recorder, not as an advisor or editor.

Actually recording the thinking (into a tape recorder or webcam) can work too, but there’s something about the slow pace of writing that gives new ideas a chance to surface. In addition, it’s easier to review one’s writing to find a key idea that tumbled out than it is to find it in a tape or video. Actually writing is best but talking things out works too, if that’s easier for your child to do.

The big deal here lies in guiding teens and older kids in understanding their own thinking and in coming up with their own solutions to their problems. These strategies are worth trying. And, best of all, they work for us grownups too!

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© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.