Stop Telling Children to Simply “Figure it Out”

When I think about the things I learned how to do as a child growing up, I remember taking swim lessons from instructors at the YMCA. My dad taught me to ride a bike, mow the lawn, and change the oil in my car. My mom taught me to bake and cook and guided me through many school projects. Most of these things I would have failed at repeatedly if I was told to go “figure it out.”

My parents realized I lacked the skills and knowledge required to complete those tasks on my own.

So why on earth, when it comes to children learning how to treat each other and/or deal with their own emotions, do we repeatedly tell them, “go figure it out.”

Young children lack a skill set for social-emotional figuring due to their developing brains. Add in excessive screen time and sedentary lifestyles, and this development can be further delayed. But while our children’s bodies and brains are developing, they are thrust into social situations where negotiation, planning, and cooperation are necessary. Conflicts will always arise and adults are either too quick to solve the problem or dismiss the annoyance and tell children to “figure it out.”

The truth is, I think it is a cop-out for adults in these situations because we are too busy with whatever we are doing in our own lives to step away and assist like we would with physical tasks. Before we declare to children to figure it out on their own, we should ask ourselves if the little humans we are dealing with actually have the skill set to solve the problem at hand. Just like you would never tell your 6-year-old to go figure out how to change the oil in the car or expect your 9-year-old to figure out how to use the stove, knives, bakeware, and oven to correctly cook a meal for her first time; we should stop expecting children to work out social situations without modeling, practicing, and guiding them through conflict with age appropriate support.

girl sitting, gazing off

Don’t just tell them to “figure it out,” here’s why:

As a classroom teacher, I often see conflicts being resolved without proper supports. The introverted child never gets a turn. Another child always gets to have it his way. Still, another kicks and storms away. The old thinking is, “well, then they just won’t have any friends if they keep acting that way.”

This is probably true. Or they start to fill a void with the wrong people and the wrong things, trying to find purpose and position in this life. This leads to an adult with bad habits of thinking and negative responses to difficult situations.

An Alternative Approach

I teach my students and my own child that the choices we make spread to others. It’s our job to spread kindness and love to the people around us and when we can’t do that, I am here to help. In my class, we talk out social stories and ways to solve problems with kindness and respect toward others. As a mom, I spend time on car rides listening to podcasts with my child. We go over different situations in life and how we can respond with a faith-based heart.
children playing, figure it outInstead of long lectures and punishments when children have conflict, I use questioning as a technique to have my school babies and my own kiddo think about their own actions. It puts the onus on them and gives a purpose for their thinking in order to find a solution.

~ Was the choice you made respectful?

~ Are your actions hurting or helping the situation?

~ How do you think Susie is feeling because of how you handled that?

~ Do you believe what she is saying about you? No? Then how can you be confident in your choice?

~ I’m going to hold onto this toy. Do you think the three of you can go negotiate a way that everyone can be satisfied and then come back with a plan?

~ I am more than happy to listen to you when you are calm. Do you think you can find a way to talk to me without shouting/crying/whining?

~ How can I help?

~ Do you need a hug? {Because sometimes our kiddos are just so overwhelmed that they just need to know we are here to help them calm the storm in their little minds.}

I know many people will think this approach is too “fluffy,” but I have seen first-hand in my classroom and in my own home, that when children feel supported and adults meet them where they are at in their emotional development, they cultivate better problem-solving skills so one day they will truly be able to figure it out.

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