June ’19 Q&A – Control vs. Problem Solving and Balance

Q. I have a 16 yr. old daughter home from boarding school after 3 years. Since school started, she has been with “friends” every evening till 8 or 9 PM. On weekends, she has been out at least till 11 PM. She wants me to extend weeknight curfew to 9 PM and to midnight on weekends. I had said no, that she needed to be home by 6-7 PM at night and by 9 PM on weekends. She said that she does not have homework and gets bored at home with nothing to do. She brought home her first grades report — mostly As & Bs, except a D in Biology and an F in Language Arts. What are your thoughts on curfews?

A. My thoughts on curfews is that they stem from a reward and punishment system that depends on the parent holding all the power. Many parents think this is necessary. I don’t. What is necessary is to know when and how to use your parent authority and when not. But authority is not the same as control, which makes a connective approach harder and trickier — but once you get it, it makes complete sense, and your children will respond so much more cooperatively – because you are not trying to control them.

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If I Don’t Punish or Give Consequences, What DO I Do? How to Use Problem Solving

Even after I outline problem solving to a frustrated parent of a child who just keeps pushing the limits, I get the same reply. “Yeah, okay, but what do I DO?”
It’s hard to understand at first that logical words, emotional understanding and empathy, and asking the child to think is actually DOING anything. We are so accustomed to grounding, time outs, taking away privileges, threatening, and withholding. It’s hard to think a respectful process of working it out is doing something.

What’s hard is dropping the notion that we have to make our children miserable in order to teach lessons.

Break it down. If you do any of the above, you are necessarily causing hurt (understanding behavior). The misguided thinking is that if our children are miserable enough, they will decide not to do the deed again and voila—learning takes place.

Well, yes, learning takes place, but not the kind you are counting on. What they feel is anger, frustration, resentment, misunderstood, unheard. What they learn is:

  • You are not the one to share feelings with or get advice from
  • How to get sneaky so you don’t know what they’re doing
  • Revenge and retaliation

Who learns to be better when they are miserable? I’m not suggesting that after your child has thrown a book at his sister you want him to feel good. But blaming him will send him into defensive reactions—fighting back, blaming sister, or laughing and pretending not to care.


When we blame our children, they naturally start building a wall of defense to protect themselves from what they perceive as an attack. In defense mode—lying, retaliating, laughing, running—they miss the opportunity to take in the natural consequence of their behavior—what their behavior has wrought—because all they can think about is getting in trouble.

Blame never serves a purpose. It is the retaliation of an exasperated parent. It’s using power to intimidate and force a child to do it our way. Isn’t that what bullies do?



The first and most important stage of problem solving is connection—empathizing with your child no matter what has happened. Empathy is understanding why your child, due to his temperament, stage of development, circumstances, etc. thinks or feels the way he does. Empathy says to your child, “I get it.” It does not say, “I agree with you.”


 Typical scenario:

When Joseph hits his brother Ian, causing screams and tears, Mom yells, “How many times have I told you there is no hitting in this house? What is wrong with you?” and takes screen privileges away. Joseph learns:

  • Mom likes Ian better
  • I am bad
  • I’ll get back at Ian for getting me in trouble
  • Nobody ever sees what Ian does. I’m the only one who EVER gets in trouble
  • I have to grab computer time cause Mom takes it away all the time
  • How to get what I want from somebody weaker than me

Frustration and anger builds the more Joseph gets in trouble. Joseph’s behavior gets worse. The cycle continues.

Notice how many times “get in trouble” comes up. When you use problem solving instead of punishment and threats, “getting in trouble” is not feared and is never a motive for defense, protection, sneakiness, or blaming others—because it’s not in the family lexicon.


New scenario:

Mom comforts Ian without mentioning Joseph. After all emotions have cooled (it’s pointless to use reason when emotions are flooding everyone) and the thinking brain is back online, Mom gets a quiet moment with Joseph and says, “I know you know it’s not okay to hit your brother, so when you did, it told me that you must have been so annoyed or angry with him that you couldn’t control yourself.” Pause. NO BUTS.

Joseph will likely agree and possibly explain what happened. Then Mom has more information. “I get it. You thought Ian was about to wreck your lego ship. I certainly understand why that would make you crazy. You worked so hard on that ship.”
Now Joseph feels understood—connection.

Then problem solving: “Can you think of another way you could have handled the anger you felt without hitting him?” At this point, Joseph is calm, he feels understood, and his thinking brain can work. He might come up with ideas you don’t like and you can say, “I get why you might want to do that. I’m not okay with that one. More ideas?” Keep facilitating Joseph’s thinking process until he says something you can agree with. “That sounds like a great idea. Think you can try that next time?”

There’s no guarantee that Joseph will do this. Impulses take over in young children. But he has created the mental pathway and will get there sooner rather than later.


Problem Solving teaches critical thinking

After connection has been made and the child feels understood, then thinking is called on. The parent or teacher facilitates the child’s thought process by asking questions, not by telling the child what to do. When the child thinks through the possibilities, it becomes a process he can do. It never works to expect him to do what you would do.

The #1 rule of problem solving: Everyone involved must agree on the solution. Don’t stop until agreement is reached. Therefore no ones loses, compromise is learned, everyone’s perspective is respected. Children engage in the process when they know they are not getting in trouble. No blame, no punishment, no misery. Cooperation is far more likely. Your role is facilitator and guide. You do NOT need to know the answer.


5 Steps to problem solving:

  1. Empathize, connect. Share power rather than impose it.
  2. Clarify your concern; own it. “I don’t like it when….”
  3. Guide child’s thought process with questions.
  4. Brainstorm solutions starting with child. How can we make this work for both of us. Can offer suggestions, choices, but don’t solve the problem or dictate what to do.
  5. Come to a mutually satisfactory solution to the problem.


Other uses of problem solving:

  • “Calling me names is not okay with me. Let me know when you can ask for what you want in a respectful way.”
  • “You want to watch your video and I want help with the dishes. How do we make it work so we both get what we want?”
  • “I’m worried about what will go on at the party. I know you aren’t. How can we work it out so I feel okay and you get what you want?”
  • “If you refuse to help then I am not going to feel so cooperative next time you want my help. How can we work this out so that doesn’t happen?”
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    Lesson: Acceptance is the first step to Problem Solving

    Lessons for Everyday Parenting

    The Connective Parenting Newsletter, June 2014

    Today’s children seem more and more challenging to our expectations of how we should parent and how they should behave. Many will not take no for an answer and won’t be told what to do. They want to solve their own problems their way. Can you let go and allow them to? It takes the power of acceptance—something most of us were not brought up on.

    Because I believe that all children want to be successful and please the most important people in their lives, I believe their challenges are telling us to see that our way of doing things may not be right for them.

    Resistance begins with us. We approach a newborn with our beliefs and expectations in tact. When that child presents us with behavior we didn’t expect or don’t know how to deal with, we approach it with those assumptions and expectations, which aren’t adjusted to who they are or what they are capable of doing. They resist with reactive behavior and herein lies the power struggle.

    We often intercept the experiences and natural consequences our children need in order to learn, cut off circuits they must explore, and interfere with their own individual development. We expect them to share when they are not yet capable, to be nice and considerate when they are deep in developmental egocentrism, to adhere to our agendas ignoring their own. When we don’t trust our child’s individual process, when we set our expectations for the child we hoped for rather than the child we have, we set up the resistance that shuts them out of our sphere of influence and sends them in the direction we most fear.

    We typically presume to know what is best and teach them what we think they should do.

    If Jacob comes home from school complaining of being pushed around and called a bad name, my fear sets in, mama bear emerges, I stop trusting Jacob’s capability, and launch into my agenda.

    • You need to stand up for yourself and tell him you don’t like that.
    • Just ignore him and walk away.
    • Tell your teacher so she can handle it.
    • Push him back. Give him some of his own medicine.
    • I’m calling your teacher/the principal/that boy’s parents and make sure he gets punished.

    All of these solutions are made with best intentions of protecting Jacob. None are intended to send him the message that he is not capable of handling the situation, or further building his dependency on someone else to solve his problems. They are made out of fear—fear of what could happen. Jacob’s capablity is ignored. He may stop coming to his parents with problems. He likely doesn’t want to be told what to do, rather he needs an understanding parent to help him decide what he thinks he can do.

    In order to develop problem solving skills in your child, you must accept that he is capable first and foremost (to the egree that he actually is). Next comes connection.

    • Oh wow, that must have been hard. Tell me more about what happened.
    • That was a difficult situation to know what to do. You must have felt so angry.

    Then comes problem solving:

    • Being away from it now, what do you think you could have done that might have helped?
    • What do you wish you could say to this boy if you could say anything you wanted?
    • Now, if you were in that situation again, what could you say or do that might stop him from messing with you?
    • Would you like any suggestions or help?

    Many of you might think I am sending Jacob to the lion’s den. Certainly there are instances when you must step in, but do so with your child’s knowledge and agreement. Your goal as a parent is to allow Jacob time to think about the situation and come up with his own solutions that work for him, which may surprise you—and which may fail. It’s not about you and what you would do. It’s about Jacob. It’s about accepting, acknowledging, and developing Jacob’s capacity to think through situations and find solutions. That’s called resilience. When you ask, “What do you think you can do?” you do not want Jacob’s response to be, “I don’t know.”

    Accepting your child’s own process of learning and developing will reduce the challenges they present you with and create connection that will last a lifetime. Your job is guide and facilitator of your child’s unique way of being in this world.

    I cannot say it better than one of my readers on facebook. “Accepting means seeing them for who they are (energy level, interests, and abilities). Parents can still guide them and forage good habits and manners while allowing them to blaze their own path and feed their own inner light.” Beautifully said, Rebecca.

    Special Offer To win a copy of a wonderful new book on how to parent with acceptance—Raise the Child You’ve Got, Not the One You Want, by Nancy Roseread my blog and leave a comment.

    Questions and Answers

    I want your questions. Here’s how it works: You email me a question to bh@bonnieharris.com, and I answer pretty quickly. I put it in a newsletter at a later date. Please try to keep them brief without leaving out critical details.

    I want your questions. Here’s how it works: You email me a question to bh@bonnieharris.com, and I answer pretty quickly. I put it in a newsletter at a later date. Please try to keep them brief without leaving out critical details.



    I have two daughters aged 4 and 3. A few months ago new neighbours moved in with a 5 ½ yo. son. The children play regularly together. There have been a few incidents recently of the boy whispering with my elder daughter, excluding my younger from play. Yesterday he started singing a song about a “baby” directed at my younger daughter, who became very upset. My older daughter joined in with him – also when he is pulling at my younger ones clothes on the trampoline. 3 children together playing is often a difficult number as there is a bit of competition from my elder daughter to get his attention (he was playing happily indoors with my younger daughter yesterday and the older one kept trying to get him to go outside). I took my elder daughter aside yesterday and spoke quite sternly to her. I don’t know the best approach as I don’t want her to be resentful or her and the boy taking my intervention out on my younger daughter.

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    Problem Solving 101

    My husband and I were taking a walk with our 21 month old grandson. For a short distance we needed to walk in the road. I said,

    “Hold my hand Sam. You have to hold my hand in the road.”

    At first he did and then he had a different idea and pulled his hand away. I said,

    “Sam you have to hold my hand.”

    He did not want to comply. So I picked him up as he was working hard to wriggle away from me and said,

    “Sam you have to hold a hand in the road. You can hold Poppy’s hand or my hand, which do you choose?”

    He stopped wriggling. I could see him thinking. He then reached for Poppy and happily took his hand. Then he reached up for mine. For the rest of our walk he wanted to hold both our hands.

    This is problem solving. Quite simple when you understand the principle. But impossible when you are stuck in the old reward and punishment mindset.

    It worked because Sam wasn’t being forced to do something he didn’t want to do—and I got what I wanted. In other words, it worked for both of us—the #1 rule of problem solving.

    When this kind of communication begins early in a child’s life, problem solving becomes second nature. You don’t even realize you’re doing it. When children trust that what they care about is important to you, even when you highly disagree, they are willing to listen to rules because they know nothing punitive or threatening is involved, and they will come out okay. No need to worry about getting in trouble, which keeps the child’s focus entirely on herself—the opposite of what you are trying to teach.

    As children get older, problem solving gets more complex. If you have been parenting in the punitive mindset, believing that your child is being defiant and bad, switching to problem solving first requires a shift in your perception and then building trust so your child knows you are willing to see things differently. If she expects you will yell, take away her iPod, or disrespect her with degrading words, she will get quite cleaver at becoming parent deaf and defy everything in anticipation of attack.

    In my scenario with Sam, my old mindset tells me,

    Sam’s being defiant and disobedient. He’s not listening.

    This of course provokes my anger, which leads to my reactivity—control, domination—grabbing his hand with force and using a hard tone,

    “You will hold my hand or we’re going back in the house! Don’t you even try to get away. It’s not safe. You have to do what I tell you.”

    This works against his agenda and will most likely lead to a power struggle in which I have to fight to win (meaning he has to lose). He will begin to distrust me. Of course it’s not safe. Of course he has to hold my hand. But I can give him a way to comply with my wish without forcing his will and making him think he’s bad.

    I need to understand that he’s not doing what he is doing on purpose to defy me. He’s doing what he wants. When I take it personally, I get my buttons pushed, and I react.

    When I shift from assuming that he needs to be taught a lesson and listen to me, to understanding that he wants what he wants when he wants it—that’s his job, my mindset thinks,

    Of course he doesn’t want to do what I’m telling him. He has another agenda.

    When I think that way, I remain calm because he is behaving the way I expect him to. Therefore I can stay firm with my rule, mean what I say, yet do so without anger and blame and most likely gain a cooperative child. read more

    Mar’ 20 Q&A – Stuck At Home With Meltdowns

    Q.  Stuck at home with three kids is bad enough but one of them is going to drive me insane. My older and my younger are doing their work and managing okay, but my 8 yr. old refuses to do his school work, along with everything else, and has regular meltdowns. He’s always been tough and resistant to what I want him to do, but now he just won’t do anything I say and is starting to use profanity toward me and my husband. I yell, send him to his room, but mostly just give up. What else can I do?

    A. I’m sure you are the voice of so many parents all over the world today cooped up at home with the whole family. You are scared and anxious, not to mention frustrated with kids underfoot all day long. So are your kids.

    I am going to assume that your 8 yr. old is what I call an Integrity child. That means his individual make-up (not your doing) is extremely sensitive. He was born with a core sense of justice, rightness. He will not be told what to do and will not take no for an answer. This does not mean he is not caring and cooperative. It does mean that when you tell him what to do, he feels controlled because he is more sensitive to that than your others. And given the present circumstances, his sensitivity is on hyper-alert so he is stressed most of the time. One cannot be at their best when stressed. No one knows that more than you.

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    Feb ’20 Q&A – The Value of Allowance

    Q. What is the right approach to give pocket money to 7.5 year old? I’m confused between giving some amount on a weekly basis as pocket money and keeping a list of chores which can be done to earn money. I don’t want her to think work needs to be done only when you get paid. Neither do I want her to think she is entitled to money.

    A. I couldn’t agree more that teaching your child that work is done only when you are paid for it is a bad idea. That’s why allowance should never be attached to chores.

    What I do believe is that giving an allowance to a child as soon as they are able to understand and be somewhat responsible about money is one of the smartest things you can do. Learning about money—how to manage it, save it, spend it, and value it—is as important for children as learning how to swim. “Entitled” to money—maybe not. But entitled to learn about money—definitely. And you must have it to learn. Critical for the years ahead.

    If your children are used to using their own money and knowing what it is for, you will be teaching life skills in so many areas.

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    Jan ’20 Q&A – When Correction Feels Like Criticism

    Q. How can I help my 8 year old son understand that I love him just the way he is AND I want him to grow, learn and improve? He says he feels humiliated and ashamed every time I ask him to learn something new because he feels like I’m saying he needs to be better than he already is. His resilience is low and I’m trying to help him using all the techniques I can find. The school is trying to help also but last term he got a detention for not following instructions and then was so ashamed of himself that it really set him back again. 

    A. It sounds like you have a sensitive son, which means he’s probably quite perceptive and intuitive in ways many kids aren’t. If that’s true, he will be extra sensitive to criticism and might perceive criticism when you don’t intend it that way. He may read you as telling him what to and then think you will be disappointed in him if he doesn’t do it or learn it the way you think he should. It’s especially important for you to encourage him in ways that allow him to make decisions about what he does and doesn’t do whenever you can — within your parameters of course.

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    July ’19 Q&A – Work With Your Child on Issues that Bug You Most

    Q. I currently feel like a failure as a parent. My 12 year old daughter is smart, well behaved, does well in school. However, there are 2 main areas that we often fight about resulting in a tense hostile environment at home. One is sneaking junk food. We have a policy for the kids to choose 2 junk items from the pantry after school. It generally works but my daughter ends up sneaking extras to her room. She cannot seem to stop herself from eating. I cannot constantly monitor her and increasing the ‘allowed’ unhealthy stuff on a daily basis is not an option.

    The other habit is watching YouTube without my knowledge. She has to use the laptop for homework, and I cannot baby sit. I want to give her the independence of making the right choices in the long term. Watching YouTube distracts her from homework and impacts the quality of her work. And I do not approve of the type of videos she watches. They are age appropriate but have no enriching content and are a waste of time. I would like her to watch videos that will enrich her, improve her skills and help her grow as an individual.

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    How to Step Out of a Power Struggle

    When we engage in power struggles with our children, it means we are invested in being right. When we must be right—”I’m the parent, I know best. You must do what I say”—the child is wrong and is left feeling powerless. The child then must fight back to preserve integrity; either that or the easy-going child submits again and again learning in the process to seek the approval of others to gauge her self-worth.

    Engaging in a power struggle keeps the parent in the position of having to be right.

    Backing down from the fight may feel too vulnerable for many parents. The parent expect the child to back down, to give up, to acknowledge being wrong — in other words, the parent expects the child to be the grown-up first.

    Parents often feel at a loss when they don’t know what to do, when what’s “right” is not apparent. It feels weak and scary. But this place of doubt, the space where you just don’t know, where vulnerability lives, is a place of opportunity — one never found when holding on to being right.

    This is your teachable moment, because you are present. Stepping out of the power struggle means your agenda is not dictating right or wrong. The problem comes when you allow this space of unknowing to fill you with frustration and fear — when you think you have to have the answer in order to maintain a power and control position with your child. Bertrand Russell once said that the trouble with the world is that stupid people are cock-sure and smart people are full of doubt!

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    Mar. ’19 Q&A – Being Your Child’s Friend and Parent, Angry Behavior and When the Coach is a Bully

    Being Your Child’s Friend and Parent

    Q. I do welcome your advice and think you speak a lot of sense, but I am not sure about your advice to be your child’s friend in one of your articles. What is wrong with being a mum? I am the only person who can officially be regarded as mum in my daughter’s life and I feel very proud to be so. I am not sure being a friend is possible as the friendship is automatically unbalanced. I have a number of very good friends, some long term and we have quite balanced relationships, involving give and take. I do not regard my relationship with my daughter as balanced, and she does not seem to understand give and take. I would also say she is a very high maintenance friend, and therefore I would go out of my way not to be her friend if she wasn’t my daughter. I don’t think she is like that with her peers though – I think their relationship is balanced. When choosing activities, we try to pick nice things to do and see, and we get a lot of resistance from her until we get her there and then she loves it. We also get resistance around food and most things at the moment – she is quite selfish and does not seem to understand the notion of helping out, and she wants things from shops all the time, which is wearing.

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