‘The Problem’ is the problem — not the kid

Amazon: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will TalkStu (Forever Parenting) offers this problem-solving advice — and a gentle reminder about the teaching inherent in parenting:

When I have a problem that concerns one of my kids (meaning: when I want them to do something that they refuse to do), I try to remember that I have a choice about how to approach the situation.

It's easy to visualize my child standing on the other side of a line next to The Problem, with me yelling across the line: "Hey, you better solve The Problem!" Instead, I get myself to stand next to my child — with The Problem alone on the other side of the line — and me putting an arm around my child, saying "Hey, lets tackle The Problem together."

I find that this attitude seems to make my kids feel better about themselves. It minimizes shame and gets us away from scolding and into problem-solving.

Wow. The wisdom of this hack is astounding. What fortunate children to grow up with such a role model.

Imagine what would happen if one communicated with one's partner that way, too.

More: Hacks about behavior and learning


  1. Rick Dobbs says

    The brilliant things always seem so obvious in retrospect. Some of the best advice I’ve seen on the site so far.

  2. Parent Hacks Editor says

    I second that, Stu. I’ve had ample opportunity to put it into practice this last week (lots of “problems” at the moment), and your words have given me a lot of comfort and peace. I’ve heard this advice before, but never described this way, and it really hit home.

  3. Thimbelle says

    Stu has a remarkable, fresh way of looking at things… :)

    Thanks for sharing this!

    T. :)

  4. Stu Mark says

    Hey, all of you, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. My wife bugged the heck out of me to share this with others and she’s glad it was well received. We both believe that the right kind of parenting can lead to the best things in life, and maybe, if we’re lucky, to world peace.

  5. Sara in Austin says

    I’ve been reflecting on this one, and discussing it with my husband, all weekend. I’m really enjoying this style of “mind hacks for parents” as well. Thank you.

  6. Barb says

    WOW! What a great way to look at these kinds of things. My daughter and I are often on opposite sides; now I’ll be able to think of it as the two of us against “the problem” (which might not actually be a problem to her ;) ).


  7. Betsy says

    I’m sleep deprived and possibly just naturally thick-headed, but I have a hard time imagining this in practice. I’d love to have someone share an example of a real situation. With our toddler, washing hands before dinner (absolutely essential as he’s begun, er, exploring his body at random moments) is suddenly a ‘problem.’ Can someone suggest a solution in keeping with this mind hack?

  8. Sophie says

    I first saw this idea as a newlywed (23 years ago) in a book of advice written by a father to his children, about how to have a happy marriage. It really works.

    My husband and I have reminded ourselves so often over the years that “this isn’t You vs. Me – this is Us against the issue” that “hey, this is Us, remember?” does the trick now. Instant anger defuser.

    Betsy: I think this hack will help you – eventually, you AND your son – to remember that you and he are always on the *same* side, with (in this case) handwashing as your common goal, and [whatever is making him fight handwashing] as the issue to be overcome.

    Otherwise, it’s so hard not to be furious with a child who won’t cooperate (and it’s worse with preteens than with toddlers, because they seem so much more rational) that anger just takes over and swamps your problem-solving. And you end up with, “Listen, you little brat…”

    My children hated handwashing as toddlers. What worked with us was “Making a Swish” – you run a little water into a stoppered sink, add a few drops of dishsoap, and then your child stands on a chair and puts both his hands in the water (fingers spread wide) and swish-swish-swish-swishes until the sink is full of bubbles. Then you say “What a good Swish!” and you both say, “Thanks, Swish!” and one of you pulls the plug. My children loved Making Swishes so much that we did it before and after meals for years.

  9. Stu Mark says


    Try the following dialogue (I slimmed it down, you make it your own):

    You: Hey, son, do you like getting sick? Remember the last time you got sick and it wasn’t nice (insert imitation of him sneezing or puking or whatever, as a humorous way to involve him)…

    Him: Yeah, that sucked.

    You: Yep, it did. And that’s The Problem. One of us forgot to wash up properly, and that’s how you got sick. So, together, we’re gonna defeat the evil, ugly, Sickness Monster.

    Him: Really?

    You: Yep! And the best way to defeat the Sickness Monster is to wash our hands. So you’ll help me by reminding me to wash my hands, and I’ll help you by remembering to wash your hands.


    I’m sure by now you get the idea. Please, let me know if this makes sense.



  10. Betsy says

    Thanks Stu and Sophie for the practical examples. I get it now, and hope to use it soon. Happy New Year!

  11. liz says


    I also have a two year old that randomly decides handwashing blows. What works really well with her is I give her something else to wash- a plastic toy, a spoon, my hands. The handwashing gets accomplished as a biproduct, and she often feels like she’s helped.

    I guess that falls more under trickery than team work, but if her hands are clean so be it.

  12. Etana says

    It speaks to the importance of empathy in parenting. Becoming a mother made me a far more empathetic person and it’s now second nature when working out things with my son.

    I’ve often wondered how some people I know, who are nearly devoid of empathy, can parent at all.

    Great words, Stu.

  13. david says

    this is so obviously intuitively true. myself, i’m far from being in this situation. but this post got me thinking back about being a kid myself, and this is exactly the way i wished it were. and i’m pretty sure that goes for all of us.