Parents of young children handle endless problems. "My hands are sticky!" "He hit me!" "My eyes itch!" "Where's my backpack?" My personal cringe, "I'm hungry!" Serious problems of life and death, necessary parental responsibilities and essential needs belong in another article. Rather, I refer to the endless little issues that especially seem to plague the end of a busy and tiring day-the stream of nagging little problems children between the ages of five and twelve should be able to handle on their own. Desperation and growing impatience prompted the creation of a solution to the endless evening problems my five children, ages 5 to 11 encounter. "No new problems after 6!"
What drove us to such a novel idea? Parents know exactly what I'm talking about. The constant little problems, as irritating as gnats on a summer evening, bit me one too many times. For example, my seven-year-old son lost his shoe. Whining and complaining only enhanced my frustration at yet another problem added to the evening's list. My suggestions to search under the bed, the trampoline, the car seat; look in the closet, the garage, and the pool produced no solution. According to my son his one shoe just disappeared. My internal pep talk for patience started to wane as I continued to suggest shoehiding places. Finally, it miraculously appeared under the bed.
Night after night, problem on top of problem erupts when I desperately need a little uninterrupted time to wind down. One night after our oldest daughter left bed to tell us a problem, I looked at her and matter-of-factly said, "I'm sorry kiddo. Daddy and I stopped taking problems at 6:00 tonight. Save it for morning." She responded with outrage and complete exasperation. My husband and I looked at each other with a little twinkle in our eyes and just smiled at her. She tried again to tell us her problem. Again I responded with, "Tell me in the morning. It's way past 6:00. We stop taking new problems after 6:00." She stomped off to bed.
The next day a similar story began to unfold. The same daughter walked out from bed to tell us something she needed. Again I responded, "Sorry! No new problems after 6:00. Tell me in the morning." Again she stomped off to bed but with a little more realization that Mom and Dad meant business. A new phase in our family dynamics emerged.
Our new plan works best when we plan a time to teach and reinforce the concept of learning how to solve problems. We find that dinnertime provides an opportune time for our family to discuss what it means to solve problems. We emphasize that as parents we love helping our children, but our job to teach them how to help themselves helps them develop skills needed for a successful life, not just for the time they live at home. We help them practice asking, "Is this a problem I can solve on my own? Is this a problem that can wait?" We help identify the difference between serious problems and simple problems; urgent problems and trivial problems. Problem solving practice encourages our children to gain stamina for solving and completing difficult, boring, and uncomfortable tasks. Eventually, as the children get older, 6 may become 7 or 8; but the question remains the same, "Is this a problem I can solve on my own? Is this a problem that can wait?"
We watch for progress, not perfection. We often experience lapses. Tiredness, stress, and emotions trigger back steps. Celebrations come in little actions that show us our children may be learning to better solve their own problems. Recently my youngest daughter failed to find her most-loved stuffed animal to accompany her to bed. One of the older children chastised her whining with the words, "No new problems after 6:00. Keep looking!"