Do you constantly referee children’s disagreements? Do you tend to side with one child, frustrating the other? Or do you offer solutions, only to be ignored? If you’re nodding in response to any of these questions, this will help…
My 4.5-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son share a room. It’s the only place in the house where they’re allowed to play LEGOs, so the plastic pieces don’t take over our living room/homeschool area. Both kids love LEGOs, but my older son likes to listen to audiobooks while he builds, and my younger daughter prefers to work in a quiet space. This causes quite a few arguments and screaming matches. They both came to me frustrated and in need of help to share their living space. It was the perfect opportunity to engage in problem-solving through brainstorming!
Step 1: State the problem
I asked them a few guided questions to come up with a statement defining the problem. We determined the problem was “Difficulty building LEGOs at the same time in the same room with different noise preferences.” Try to state the problem as clearly and precisely as possible, to encourage effective brainstorming.
Step 2: Brainstorm solutions
I told them they were both creative problem-solvers and we’d use their skills to find a solution that works for everyone. During brainstorming, possible solutions are written down without being evaluated. Anything goes, even the craziest solutions. You might have to remind children (and yourself) of this because our brains are wired to immediately weigh solutions for their effectiveness, and it can be hard to sit with the discomfort of what are clearly implausible answers.
If you’re worried that the children will waste your time coming up with useless harebrained solutions, remember that they are motivated to solve their problem. If you don’t react and just write down their ideas, they’ll eventually refocus on tangible solutions. Plus, some of those crazy solutions are a great way to let them exercise their imagination (and who knows, they just might work)! Resist the temptation to offer suggestions, even though you can probably see a clear path towards an amicable solution if they just did what you think is best. This is their problem, and they have to own the solution by coming up with it. You can act as the scribe so they can focus on finding solutions.
My children’s brainstorming list included:
- wear wireless headphones;
- be allowed to play LEGOs downstairs;
- lower the volume of the audiobook;
- take turns using the room (while the other person plays non-LEGO games downstairs);
- no more audiobooks;
- put up with the noise;
- read books downstairs;
- play in the room together listening to audiobooks part of the time and without audiobooks the other part.
Step 3: Eliminate implausible solutions
Once they’ve exhausted their ideas, review the list with them and tell them that they get to cross out any ideas that don’t meet the following criteria:
- Respectful (to all involved, including bystanders),
- Realistic (ideas you can execute within the boundaries of your environment),
- Related (the solution must attempt to solve the problem)
- Helpful (improves the lives of all involved)
Keep the process objective by focusing the four criteria. If a child says, “That idea is dumb,” you can invite them to elaborate by asking, “Is it respectful? Realistic? Related? Helpful?” Here you CAN give your opinion, but only after your children have had their turn nixing ideas. In our situation:
- They realized that their ideas to “put up with the noise” and “ban audiobooks” weren’t respectful, so they crossed those out.
- The suggestion to “read books downstairs” wasn’t related to the problem.
- They’d tried “lowering the volume” in the past, but my daughter was still able to hear it and it meant that my son had to have one ear glued to the device, so that wasn’t realistic.
- I wasn’t comfortable with my son walking around with wireless headphones all day for several reasons (health, safety, disconnection, etc.), so I mentioned this and we crossed that one out.
- “Playing LEGOs downstairs” isn’t realistic or respectful because we know from experience that the little plastic pieces quickly overtake our common living/learning area. It goes against the boundaries of our environment, so it was eliminated.
Step 4: Choose one solution from the ones remaining
By the end of this process, the children were down to two solutions: “play in the room together listening to audiobooks part of the time and without audiobooks the other part” and “take turns using the room and playing something else downstairs.” They chose the latter, and we discussed the details of how that would look (the younger one plays downstairs from wake-up to lunch, and then they switch in the afternoon). Then I told them that we’d try the solution for one week, and revisit it to make adjustments if necessary.
Step 5: Set them up for success
This is where YOU come in. Your role is to help them adapt their routine, environment, and expectations so they can stick to the solution for the week. Without a solid plan, it’s very easy to fall back into old habits (and arguments). You are there to hold boundaries, remind them of their solution, and empathize if things aren’t working out the way they envisioned.
Solutions are rarely perfect at first, and require fine-tuning. Observe what’s working and what isn’t, so you can guide their follow-up session. For example, two days into the trial period, my daughter approached me with a different solution. I acknowledged her viewpoint, reminded her of our agreement, and told her we would revisit the solution in five more days.
I’ve used this Positive Discipline approach with children in my Montessori environments for years, and after a few guided sessions, the children begin to use it on their own. It’s a fantastic way to empower them, raise creative critical thinkers, and remove yourself from the middle. Let me know if you try it, I’d love to hear how it goes.