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Who owns the problem?

Amy McCready

From Positive Parenting Solutions founder and TODAY Moms contributor, Amy McCready

Wouldn’t it be nice if our kids never had to face a challenge or a problem? If life just rolled out the red carpet for them and rocketed them to happiness and success? Of course we all would love for our kids to have it easy—but life never is, whether you’re in preschool or grad school.

Lots of parents try to help their children negotiate potential hardships—both big and small—by hovering over their every move so nothing goes wrong (helicopter parents) or clearing a smooth trail ahead of them, even if the kids don’t ask for it (lawnmower parents).

However, both of these parenting styles leave kids unprepared to face the real world and solve problems for themselves next time a parent can’t be around. Although their intentions are good, lawnmower and helicopter parents unintentionally rob their kids of critical life experiences and lessons.

For instance, if your 8-year-old habitually refuses to wear her coat on cold days, do you plead, demand or negotiate with her until she does? Or do you constantly find yourself gathering your kids’ sports equipment for them before every practice?

If you do, you’re not alone—parents want their kids to be comfortable and successful. We also, admittedly, want to save face in front of our own peers (“What will the other parents think of me if I let my child go out without her coat?”).

But if we rescue our kids all the time, they’ll begin to depend too much on us, instead of on their own good sense.

Helicopter, lawnmower or neither?

Here’s what you can do to see if you’re needlessly hovering or clearing a way for your kids.  Ask yourself this simple question: “Who owns the problem?”

For example, let’s go back to the 8-year-old who won’t wear a coat. Here’s what that might sound like in the typical household.

“It’s freezing outside, Sophie, don’t forget your coat!” reminds Mom.

 “I don’t need a coat,” replies Sophie

 “Sophie, get your coat!” Mom demands, wanting to get out the door.

“Mom, really, I’m okay!” Sophie returns with an eye roll.

“Young lady, get your coat!” yells Mom.

“Fine, I’m going!” Sophie stomps off.

No matter who “wins,” both Mom and daughter end up angry or annoyed, and no one has learned anything.

But let’s rewind and ask, who owns the problem? Who will be bothered or inconvenienced by not having a coat? Sophie, of course. But who took responsibility for the problem? Mom did by reminding and badgering Sophie to take the coat. Now, Mom is the bad guy and Sophie has missed out on an important lesson in personal responsibility. Sophie has her coat so she’s not cold at recess, but was it truly wise of Mom to fight this battle?

What would have happened if, instead, Mom had relinquished the problem to Sophie? She could have:

  1. Asked Sophie to stand outside on the porch and determine for herself whether or not to wear a coat. This would’ve given Sophie a healthy sense of personal power—she’s making her own real-life decisions.
  2. Allowed Sophie to go without a coat and experienced the natural consequences of getting cold at recess. And you can be sure she’d remember her coat the next day—without any reminders whatsoever.

If Mom backs off and allows Sophie to experience the natural consequences of her actions, Mom removes herself from the fight and lets Sophie learn an important lesson.

Applying natural consequences

Natural consequences can be applied to a wide variety of problems or power struggles, and they’re an excellent way to let life experiences teach your child appropriate behavior. You begin by simply asking “Who owns the problem?” and, if your child owns it, allowing the natural consequences to play out.

If your 10-year-old always forgets to return library books, for instance, allow him to experience the natural consequences of a fine. After he’s paid a fine out of his allowance once or twice, he’ll soon take full responsibility for his own account.

Or if your 6-year-old wants to spend all of her allowance on a toy you know she’ll be done with after 30 minutes, it’s okay to let her do so. She’ll learn much more through the natural consequences of foolish spending than through the educational world map puzzle you’d much rather she purchase.

And the same goes for remembering lunch money, bringing an umbrella, leaving toys out in the rain and more. In these cases, and many others, it’s your child who owns the problem—not you.

With natural consequences, there’s no need to hover or clear a smooth path for your children. Remember, kids learn the best through their own life experiences—not through lectures or reminders from us. Let’s lose the power struggles and instead let our kids learn the lessons they need for success in adulthood.


Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and mom to two boys, ages 12 and 15. Positive Parenting Solutions teaches parents of toddlers to teens how to correct misbehaviors without nagging, reminding or yelling. For free discipline training resources, visit: www.PositiveParentingSolutions.com