When my son was 5, he came home from a neighbor’s yard upset. “All the kids want to play soccer and I hate soccer!” He began to stomp up to his room. But then he paused on the stairs, and I could see he was thinking things through. He didn’t want to play soccer, but he did want to play with other kids. So what other options were there?
“Hey mom,” he said. “Do soccer games have announcers like baseball games do? Do you think I could go be the announcer?” A few minutes later, I heard his voice through the trees: “Another goal for Team T-Rex!”
Learning how to create a healthy distance between our emotional reaction and our response takes a lot of practice. Think about how quickly a toddler can move from anger to hitting. When we pause, and examine the situation, we can make better decisions.
But we can’t just assume children will naturally develop this skill. What I love about the new PBS KIDS show, “Alma’s Way,” is that each episode shows children a consistent, concrete strategy for making responsible decisions. In these “think-through” moments, Alma pauses, thinks through her current situation or dilemma, reflects on her goals, and decides what step she needs to take next.
Here are four ways you can help your child stop and think through decisions.
1 Model the “think-through” strategy.
Kids are wonderful observers of human behavior — but they aren’t mind readers. Just like viewers can get inside Alma’s head as she reflects, we can talk through our thinking with our kids. It might sound like this:
“I’ve been wondering how to make mornings more peaceful. This morning we were late to school. I was busy packing lunch while you were hunting everywhere for your shoes and backpack. We all got cranky. I have an idea! What if you set your shoes and backpack by the door before you go to bed, while I pack lunch. Let’s try it tonight and see if it helps.”
As you talk through your dilemmas and family challenges, you can also enlist their help. “You two got in a fight tonight because you both wanted to play with the same toy at the same time. What could we do next time that happens? Who has an idea?”
2 Instead of jumping in with solutions, help them reflect.
Sometimes when our kids come to us with a problem, we want to jump in and fix the situation — especially if they are in distress. It’s really hard to see our kids upset! But when we solve their problems for them, they don’t get to practice solving them on their own — and that’s how they build authentic confidence.
That doesn’t mean we walk away and say, “Sorry, you’re on your own, kid!” Engage in a conversation that helps them think through the situation.
- That sounds hard. Can you tell me more about it?
- What have you already tried? What happened?
- What’s one thing you can try next? Let’s think about the possibilities.
- How would so-and-so (a TV character, a classmate) describe the problem?
- What would you do to change the situation?
3 Use visualization strategies.
When Alma stops to think, she visualizes what just happened, looking for cues and clues about what to do next. We can do the same exercise with our children. Start imagining what a better morning routine would look like, step-by-step. If they are nervous about going to sports practice for the first time, help them visualize what it will look like and what they will do when they get there.
Child psychologist Katie Hurley told me that she encourages kids to “zoom out” to reflect on the big picture. For instance, if they are struggling with recess, try drawing a map of the playground. Where do they want to go? What do they like to do? What activities do other kids do at recess? What’s one thing they want to try tomorrow?
4 Notice when children do stop and think.
When we notice children’s positive choices — and describe back what we saw — we are giving them information they can use in the future. My favorite way to give praise to kids is to start with “I noticed…” For example:
“I noticed that you walked away when your sister made a face at you. I know you probably wanted to yell at her, but you didn’t. That took self-control.”
“I noticed that you kept working on your structure, even after it fell down twice. That took perseverance.”
Kids can be great, inventive problem solvers. When we help them make space to think through their challenges, we give them tools that will last a lifetime.