Who Owns the Problem?

who owns the problem

Five-year-old Samantha leaves her lunchbox at home at least once a week. Her mother, Lori, makes a special trip to school to bring Samantha’s lunch–a thirty-minute disruption to Lori’s day.

Who owns the problem of getting Samantha’s lunch to school? Samantha or her mother?

Some parents feel that they own all their children’s problems. When we take responsibility for every one of our children’s actions, we are robbing our children of the opportunity to grow more responsible and to understand the consequences of their actions or inactions.

If the child owns the problem, we should let the child handle the problem but support the child as necessary.

If the parent owns the problem, then we must work with the child in order for the child to learn from the experience and become more responsible.

We can determine who owns the problem by asking the following questions:

1. Who is directly affected with this situation?

2. Who is the person complaining or making an issue of the situation?

3. Whose work is being undermined?

In the forgotten lunch situation of Samantha and Lori, both Samantha and Lori are directly affected, along with others in Samantha’s classroom. Samantha pouts and refuses to join in classroom activities, thus disturbing her classmates, until she can call her mother to bring her lunch.

Samantha is the major complainer in this situation. Lori isn’t thrilled, either, about having to take another 30 minutes out of her morning to get lunch to school.

Lori’s work is being undermined by Samantha’s forgetfulness, while Samantha’s work of becoming more responsible is not being developed.

Samantha should own the problem of remembering her lunch and suffer the consequences of having to eat school lunch on the days she forgets her lunch. Lori can work with Samantha to help Samantha learn to independently remember her lunch by using mnemonic devices such as placing a note on the back door or the back seat of the car.

Our goals as parents should be to help our children develop concentration and independence. Helping our children own their problems prepares our children for the challenges they will encounter in the day-to-day existence of their lives.

Many adults who work with elementary, junior high, high school and college-age students report that parents seem to be running interference for their children far more often than necessary, thus denying their children the chance to learn from solving their own problems.

These parents seem to appear immediately out of nowhere to intervene in their children’s difficulties, thus earning themselves the nickname of ”helicopter parents.” Calling teachers about forgotten homework, arguing with coaches about a demerit in sports, hiring consultants to write college applications, to appearing on their children’s job interviews on college campuses–every new experience for their children is hovered over by these helicopter parents in misguided search-and-rescue attempts.

Allow your children to take responsibility for their own problems, while supporting your children as they learn to navigate new waters.

Before jumping in to solve a problem, ask yourself, ”Who truly owns this problem?”

If the answer is ”my child,” don’t hesitate ”to let ’em have it.”

Remember: It is only one squiggly letter to go from mothering to smothering.

10 Responses to “Who Owns the Problem?”

  1. Glennis McNeal

    It’s called “the law of natural consequences” to allow a child to discover the consequences of their actions. Making a child go without lunch is not the same as letting him run into the street to be hit by a car. When the consequences aren’t life-threatening, they acquire meaning and save years of nagging, reminding, and yes, needless trips to the school. My authority for speaking? Four responsible adult children who thought their mother to be mean on occasion.

  2. Rob Cross

    Failing to let a child answer their own short comings leads to a life time of wanting to be rescued .

    • Rob,

      The older I get, the more I see that phenomenon.

      Any unnecessary help is a hindrance to a person’s development, whether that is at nine months or 90 years.

  3. Maren, any thoughts on an almost 4-year old who swings wildly between fierce independence versus needing “mummy to do it”?

    I know Montessori principles call for the parent/caregiver not to do a task at which the child can succeed herself.

    But what do you do when the child is exhausted after a long day, then insisting on dressing herself when she is clearly struggling and getting frustrated – or the opposite the next, insisting that I should dress her, brush her teeth, and everything else in between!

    Any comments greatly appreciated. 🙂

    • Kim,

      There are so many things going on with an almost 4-year-old.

      They are learning so many new things and what you see in terms of being able to perform a skill one day, and not the next, is typical.

      As parents and teachers it can be frustrating for us because we see that a child can do a task independently, then in a blink of an eye, the child can’t do the task.

      What happened?

      One reason is exactly what you have observed: the child is tired, hungry, and exhausted from the day’s activities.

      When our emotional brain is upset it’s difficult to retrieve important information to do a task. Frustration builds quite easily.

      Another reason is that the “candle blew out”. Learning in the young child takes many repetitions and re-teachings. We have to “relight the candle”.

      And I know for myself, if I haven’t done something in a while, I’d rather ask someone who I know can do it, to do it for me. The time it takes me to figure out all the steps again can be frustrating.

      So, my suggestions would be to…

      • Make sure certain tasks are done before your daughter is too tired. Try to make her day shorter when you can.

      • Know that the candle may have burned out and you need to show her again how to do a task.

      • Realize that “any unnecessary help is a hindrance to a person’s development.” Teach your child to ask for assistance so you don’t over-do. On your end, ask if she would like some help.

      Some Kids Talk articles that may help:

      Relight The Candle

      Three Levels Of Obedience

      Asking For Assistance

      Kim, I hope this helps. Please let me know how it goes.

      All the best, Maren

      • Thanks so much Maren, these articles were so helpful! Bathtime was definitely better tonight, I have a much better understanding now of how and when to help. 🙂

  4. I liked the approach very much. But do you actually say ” that was your problem or that was your job to remember and now you can suffer the consequences?”
    Or how do you word it to the child?
    Thank you in advance.

    • Nomita,

      One idea that I try to communicate is that we need to “work with” our children instead of “doing to” our children.

      A communication tool I teach to help us “work with” our children is five-step problem solving.

      Read about it here:

      In this case with Lori and Samantha, Lori would visit with Samantha ata a quiet time when the lunch box problem is NOT an issue.

      Lori would start off with something like, “Samantha, I have a problem and I was wondering if you would be willing to help me with it.”

      “Wonderful. Here’s the problem. When you forget your lunch and I have to leave work to bring it to you, I get really grumpy. How can we work together to make sure you remember your lunch everyday?”

      As Samantha and Lori talk through the situation they realize that the lunchbox gets left in the backseat of the car.

      One idea they come up with is to put the lunch box next to Samantha and the car door, so it is easy to remember.

      Another is to put a sticky note on the car door that reads, “Stop. Do you have your lunch?”

      Another is that Samantha volunteers to eat school lunch if she forgets her lunch box and not ask her mother to bring it.

      Lori says that the sticky note on the car door will also help her remind Samantha about her lunch.

      They implement their solution and then check back to make sure it is working. If it doesn’t work then they problem solve the situation again, finding different solutions to implement.

      That’s what I mean when I refer to supporting our children as they learn new skills. We work with them. We let them own the problem and the solution, but we work with them as they learn new skills.

      Hope this helps!


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