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How do you know when to intervene in your kids’ problems and when to let them sort it out on their own?

September 27, 2013

As mom of a 3-year-old, I’m just beginning to grapple with this question. Until now, it’s been my job to be protector, comforter and provider of nearly all things. But as she gets older, I know that I need to focus more on teaching her how to resolve problems on her own and giving her the space to exercise the muscles needed to do so. I also know that over time this will become more and more important, for her and for me.

Problem is- it’s kind of hard.

A few days ago, we went to one of those indoor play places- the ones where they have lots of toys and activities and the kids play and the moms (try to) sit and relax a little. She pretended to manage her indoor garden or grocery shop or cook dinner in the play kitchen, and I struggled to figure out how involved I should be.

As she gathered vegetables in her basket, a little girl walked over and took them right out of her hands and walked away. My daughter just looked at me with this bewildered expression, aghast at the injustice of it all. I couldn’t say that I blamed her. Do I step in and get the toy vegetables back from the little girl? Do I tell my little one not to worry about it and find something else to play with? Should I pretend I didn’t see it and let her sort it out on her own? I didn’t know.

I do know, though, where she gets this strong sense of right and wrong. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say. I, too, felt the frustration of being wronged, and I wanted to make it right for her. I also wanted the other mothers to be engaged like I was so they can stop their children from taking toys from mine. I also know, however, that living life expecting others to play by your rules is a really frustrating way to live. Perhaps it’s better for her to learn sooner than later that sometimes you’ve got to just roll with the punches.

As I sat continuing to wonder how to manage this situation, a little boy came up to her as she was riding a tricycle. He pushed her aside and rode off on the tricycle. Again, she looked at me in disbelief that kids could possibly behave this way. The same scenario played out several times throughout the morning, and after the first few times, I (sort of) decided on a course of action.

I got out my book and tried to read in order to distract myself a little. She didn’t need me to monitor every interaction, and my hyper-attentiveness causes her to look to me for the answer any time she faces a problem. When she did come to me with a problem, I instructed her how to manage it instead of stepping in myself.

When the vegetable-stealing girl returned to once again pilfer from her basket, I told her to say “No, thank you” and walk away when the little girl reached in to take the vegetables. When the little boy pushed her aside and took the toy she was playing with, I told her to let him have a turn and then go and get it again.

It’s all just a confusing mix. You want to teach your children to share, but what are they supposed to do when someone isn’t sharing with them? You want them to be kind and learn how to get along with other children, but you don’t want them to be a doormat who can’t stand up for themselves. You want them to know right from wrong and obey the rules, but you don’t want them to run and tattle to you every time something doesn’t go the way it should.

I can’t say I’ve found the answer to this one yet. And, perhaps that’s because I struggle with the same issues in my adult-sized problems. Life just isn’t always fair. It isn’t always the smartest or the hardest working person that gets the promotion. I want other drivers to obey the rules on the highway because my safety depends on it, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

The only thing I can do is to step back and let my daughter learn to navigate some of these issues on her own. I’ll encourage her to approach them in the same way that I remind myself to manage them-to be honestly kind and kindly honest, and remember to give others a little bit of grace when they don’t do things the way we think they should.