Be the Consultant: Don’t Rescue (Discipline Skill #3)

Be the Consultant: Don’t Rescue (Discipline Skill #3)

Discipline Skill #3:
Be the Consultant. Don’t Rescue.
Instead, Guide Your Child to Solve His/Her Own Problems

It is understood that parents must play many roles in raising responsible, caring, and cooperative children. At different times, in different circumstances, depending on their child’s age and needs, parents are nurturers and protectors, they are teachers and guides, they are role models and advocates.

Yet one of the most important roles a parent can play in raising responsible, caring, and cooperative children is one that parents typically may not even consider, much less know how to perform. That is the role of consultant to their child. It is a somewhat difficult role, and may or may not come naturally for any given parent. It is certainly one that requires a real balance between the natural tendency to help the child by protecting and supporting, versus the natural tendency to help the child by teaching right and wrong, or guiding the child in how to do what’s right and how to do it well. The consultant role actually provides the child with a bit of all of these parental blessings: protection, support, teaching, and guiding. With this approach, you are “teaching her how to fish” instead of just “giving her a fish” (the way a baby’s “mommy” might do).

Being a consultant has two important parts.

1. Determine Who Owns the Problem.

First, the parent must recognize that their child has problems–and that the child’s problems are indeed the child’s problems, not (strictly speaking) the parent’s. If the child doesn’t want to eat a certain food, or feels hurt by a friend, or is angry at the parent, this is the child’s problem. In situations where the parents are divorced or separated, the child will inevitably complain about the other parent, or use their experience with one parent against the other one in order to get what they want. This is a trap that few parents can resist getting caught in unless they have been taught clear guidelines on how to handle it. What is said here applies to these situations as well as to the situation where both parents live together. Parent A must recognize that anytime a child comes to them with a complaint about parent B, it is the child’s problem, not the parent’s.

This means the child owns the problem and is therefore responsible for a solution. Parent A must resist the temptation to try to solve the problem for the child instead of offering suggestions or potential solutions that the child can then use to blame parent A for proposing if things don’t work out. The child is likely to distort the advice given by parent A anyway, since the child sees things and understands things much differently than either parent does.

This means that parents should not take the child’s problem away from the child by making it their own, and coming up with a solution to it. This can be difficult to recognize, and tolerate, because no parent wants to see their child suffer. The natural tendency is to nurture, protect, or support the child and relieve their suffering by providing answers or solutions to the child’s dilemma. Besides, the parent can rationalize that they are better problem solvers than the child, which is no doubt true.

In addition, under the guise of helping by offering suggestions and solutions, the parent conveys that the child is incapable of solving her own problem, and needs to depend on the parent to find relief. When the parent lets that happen, the parent is now saddled with another problem to solve–one whose solution might seem obvious to the caring parent, but is too often rejected with “No, that won’t work” by the child. Or the child might not fully understand what the parent is suggesting, or implement the solution imperfectly, both of which may lead to failure and make things worse. This can obviously lead to frustration (if not anger and resentment) for the child as well as for either or both parent.

2. Guide the Child to Solve Her Own Problem

A more realistic–and far more helpful–role for the parent to take is that of consultant: to let the child have her own problem and find her own solution to it. Now the parent can really be helpful! Okay, so how do you do that?

This the second part of being the child’s consultant: guiding the child to solve her own problem. This might seem impossible at first blush, especially with young children, but I always like to say, “Give your kid a chance. Don’t sell her short. She just might–and probably does–have some ideas about how to handle her problem to find relief.” Her ideas may not be as sophisticated or as effective as yours might be, but they make sense from her perspective. And really, you can, in a consultant role, help the child think through her problem and come up with what you also consider to be a reasonable solution.

Still, there is no guarantee that the child’s solution will work, but there is almost certainly a guarantee that she just might come up with things that a parent might not dream of in a million years. And I always say that it’s a great idea to use whatever, and how ever many, ideas the kids come up with whenever possible, even if they seem a bit far-fetched or unlikely to succeed. The reason is simple. It conveys to the child that you value and respect her own ability to meet the challenges she is faced with. You might not be so confident that she’ll come up with a good solution, but at least you’re willing to help her try. And a chosen solution does not work, you then have a golden opportunity to teach your child the difference between failure and a learning experience. You have the opportunity to help her think through the problem again, with the added information of what was tried but didn’t work, to come up with yet another creative solution that is devised by the child. Isn’t this what we mean by teaching children to learn to be responsible, and to make good decisions? How else does anyone really learn responsibility and develop problem-solving skills other than by real life experience, reflection, honest self-assessment, learning social cues and the impact on others that our own behavior has, and learning by trial and error?

A Four- Or Five-Step Sequence

The following four- or five-step problem-solving process can be worth its weight in gold on several levels. It conveys that you have some confidence (limited though it might be) in your child’s ability to think, and be resourceful–even if she’s just two years old. Plus, it actually helps your child learn how to think through problems and be creative and resourceful. (Solving her problem for her won’t do that.) In addition, it relieves you of the sometimes impossible burden of coming up with a solution that your child will actually accept! And beyond that, if the child accepts your suggestion and it doesn’t work, then who is going to be held responsible?
Here is an excellent problem-solving sequence that a “consultant parent” can use with a child of any age, to help her resolve her own problem. And don’t worry–you will get your opportunity to be helpful by offering your ideas (if the child actually needs that kind of help) by asking what she thinks would happen if she tried xyz.

1. Offer a brief empathic statement (if appropriate) such as “Well, it sounds like you’re feeling upset and hurt (or angry, or whatever). Let’s think about this for a minute.” This conveys that you take the child’s feelings seriously, and understand them, and that you are willing to be involved in helping her with her challenge.

2. Ask for her ideas about possible options. “What do you think you could do about that?” Or, “What would be an option you could try?” “Can you think of some possible options?” “When do you think you would want to try that?” “What would you say?” “What do you think would happen if you tried that?” “How would so and so respond?” “How do you think s/he would feel?” “How do you think you would feel?” “What do you think would be the overall (or long-term) result?” By using open-ended questions like these (instead of closed-ended “Yes” or “No” type qyuestions) you can help the child generate several options, no matter how outlandish they might seem to you. If she comes up with something obviously irresponsible or just plain silly, say something like, “Well, I guess that would be one idea. Can you think of another?” Stay with this process till the child has come up with all the ideas she’s willing to try to generate.

3. If you think it’s necessary to give the child a boost and provide some input of your own, say something like, “Well, I have some ideas about this. Would you like to hear one or two?” Or, “Would you like to hear my idea about that?” Or, “Would you like to hear what other kids have tried? (Use this step 3 only if no desirable option surfaces in step 2 that the child decides to try.) If you do use this option, be sure that you present it in a way that clearly communicates that it’s just an idea, one of many, that they child herself is free to choose or reject. You want the responsibility for the choice to rest on the child’s shoulders, not yours. You cannot be emotionally committed to one specific solution. If you are, then it means you are taking ownership of the problem and its solution.

4. After each idea generated by the child in step 2, or by you in step 3, ask the child to evaluate it as to its usefulness for her. “How do you think that would work for you?” Or, “Can you think of any consequences to that option?” Or, “What do you think would happen if you tried that?” “How would so-and-so feel?” “How would you feel?” “Would it be worth a try?” What could you do if it doesn’t work well?”

5. If the child decides to try one of the options she (or you) generated, give it your blessing. That is, tell her you support her using that idea, and ask her to give you feedback on how it works out. You could say, “Okay honey, I think it’s worth giving that a try. Let me know what happens, all right?” Or, “Cool! You (or we) came up with something that might work! Let me know how it works out for you, okay?”

What You’re Teaching the Child Is Learning

If she ends up not choosing any option to try, suggest that you and she come back and talk about it again later. The big idea here is that, as a consultant, you are helping your child learn how to solve her own problems. She doesn’t have to come up with a sure-fire solution. What’s more important is that you are teaching her to give her best shot at coping with life in her own way. And believe me, when she starts having success, she’ll feel very good about herself. And she’ll get better with practice at problem-solving too! What’s not to like about that? In addition, you are relieved of the burden of coming up with brilliant solutions that will work–or, worse, that will be rejected outright.

What’s more, you yourself don’t have to be perfect with this step-by-step guidance process. It’s basically pretty logical, and you can experiment with it, and modify it on the spur of the moment if you wish. In any case, by using this approach, you’re getting the hang of “letting go” and letting your child handle her own life problems! This is great.

You are not abandoning your parental power and responsibility to help your child, or to be protective and supportive, or to teach what’s right and wrong, or show her how to do what’s right. You’re just using your power in a different way, as a consultant. The results, both short-term and long-term, are much more likely to be positive for everyone involved.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

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