It’s hard being a kid. It’s harder still being a parent and watching your kids navigate waters that seem a thousand times more complex than when we were growing up. Most of us spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to inoculate our children from some of the shocking difficulties that so many kids seem to face before their 18th birthday.
Our daughters are 15 and 10, and we have one strategy that continues to go the distance. It’s a Jedi mind trick that requires consistency but no Herculean effort. It all hinges on a simple sentence: We are problem-solvers.
We started saying it when my daughters were preverbal, and they have heard it so many times that it cues the requisite eyeroll a fair amount of the time. We are problem-solvers.
That’s it. Any time we have any sort of challenge, we say, “We are problem-solvers.”
My daughter can’t find her shoes and we’re running late for her game: “I don’t know where your shoes are. But I know we are problem-solvers. And we’ve solved way bigger problems — where should we start?”
Our family has a conflict, and we’re stuck on what to do about it: “We’re not sure how to get out of this situation, but this family solves problems. We are problem-solvers. Let’s think about it.”
I watch my daughters stick with something, even through discomfort. I try not to say anything about how smart they are (although I am often thinking it). Instead, I say, “I noticed you stuck with that and worked on it until you solved your problem. I felt proud of you. I love problem-solvers.”
Like any parenting tool, it escalates issues as often as it deescalates them, but we have noticed a “baking in” of that problem-solving mentality. Telling them that they are problem-solvers is actually turning them into little problem-solving people.
Sophia, our 10-year-old, is majorly afraid of thunderstorms — like, make-you-believe-in-past-lives-trauma afraid.
Last month, during a particularly bad storm, I heard her quietly reflecting to herself, “We’re goners.” She is majorly afraid, but not helpless. She wears noise-canceling headphones and listens to relaxation music really loud. If the lightning is pronounced, she builds a fort in my closet. She is no less afraid, but she has strategies, and she knows it’s her responsibility to put them to work.
As parents, we have amazing influence over what gets “baked into” our children’s identities. We literally speak identity into our kids. When we encourage and expand on certain characteristics, we are showing them that we value that part of their identity which, in the context of a secure and healthy attachment, will create space for that trait or characteristic to flourish.
Full disclosure: I’m not perfect at this. But I shoot for being the kind of mom I want to be about 70% of the time — make that 60%. I highly recommend this, by the way, as it cuts down on the shame spirals. That said, of all the parenting strategies we aim to implement, this one has real teeth and would be one of the last ones I’d be willing to abandon.
This constant chorus about problem-solving in the background of our lives also helps remind me to resist the temptation of solving all of their problems for them. I picture them in college or beyond and think, I have 18 years with you…18 years for you to discover what you are made of so that you can handle whatever comes your way. As much as I want to be the hero and do this for you, I want even more for you to have practice in handling it so that you can navigate this world outside of our relationship.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to give my daughters false assurances that nothing bad will happen. I want to give them a deep and abiding confidence that whatever happens, they can handle it.