My mom always knows just when I need a kick in the pants. I have a clear memory of standing as a child in the kitchen, looking into the cupboards and uttering the inevitable phrase, ‘I don’t know what to eat.’ After listing pretty much every available option in the house and being met with my dissatisfied ‘no’ every time my mom finally said, with only a hint of frustration ‘Well, I guess you’ll just have to find something yourself then, Jenna.’ Yeah, I needed that.

My mom was happy to help but was also able to see when her help was not needed. She didn’t take it personally and she didn’t take responsibility for fixing my problem. She saw when I needed to take responsibility and passed it over to me.

So often we interpret what children say as pleas for our intervention. And then we find ourselves frustrated when they need our intervention again. But perhaps if we were to focus in on what they’ve actually said, we might hear something different.

photo credit:

What it sounds like:
“I’m bored.”
“I’m hungry.”
“I can’t do it.”

Mistaken for:
“Find me something to do.”
“Find me something to eat.”
“Do it for me.”

What child is learning: Children often process their thoughts verbally just as adults do. They also like to share their experiences with others. But when busy adults, who are used to solving problems and getting things done, encounter such verbalizations, they naturally assume that the child is requesting their intervention. “You’re bored? Well, let’s find you something to do!” Children will rarely refuse an offer of help from an adult, whether or not it is what they were looking for in the first place. And if these offers become more regular, children not only begin to depend on them, but may also start believing that they need them. 

How to support: Pause. Rewind. What did he actually say? Has he actually asked you to fix the problem?

No? Maybe that’s not what he’s looking for? What is he looking for? Acknowledgement and sympathy?

Yes? Could this be because he’s used to having his problems solved for him? Could he benefit from some support in solving the problem on his own?

It doesn’t mean that you should never offer intervention, it just means that maybe that’s not the best place to start. Start by responding to the actual statement. Especially if your mind is occupied elsewhere try to take a minute and see things from the child’s perspective. Explore the statement a bit and try to figure out how you can best be of help. Here’s an example:

Child: “I’m bored.”

Adult: “You’re bored.” “I can see why you might be bored, we’ve been inside most of the day and I’ve been busy with my own jobs.”

Child: “Yeah, I’ve played with all my toys and there’s nothing left to do.”

Adult: “I hate it when I feel like I’ve got nothing fun to do. That always makes me feel frustrated. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Child: “Do you have any new toys for me?”

Adult: “No, I’m sorry I don’t.”

Child: “Can you come play with me?”

Adult: “I can’t right now but I can in about half an hour. What could you do until then?”

Child: “I guess I could play with my trucks for a bit.”

Adult: “That sounds like a good place to start. If you’re done with that before I’m ready to play you can come back and we can figure something else out.”

Child: “Okay.”

Adult: “Thanks for working that out. It can be hard to find something to do.”

That wasn’t too exciting or revolutionary but that’s kind of the point. You don’t need to have magical powers to support a child in problem solving, just some patience and trust. You’ll note that the adult tried to avoid offering specific suggestions and focused on acknowledging and clarifying the child’s thoughts. This does require more time, energy and patience initially but over time the child will begin to internalize this discussion, allowing him to problem solve independently.

This discipline applies equally well to babies: It can be harder to interpret what they’re actually saying because they can only communicate through crying, and cries are obviously more difficult to understand than words. But it is no less likely that a baby simply needs acknowledgement and sympathy instead of intervention. A lot of those whiny, frustrated cries that we interpret as pleas for help may just be baby saying, “Wow, this rolling over thing is really hard!” Does she need to be rescued from this experience or perhaps merely hear her frustrations verbalized by a sympathetic adult?

And it also applies to adults: When I’m tempted to tell my co-workers, friends and family members to “stop complaining” I go back over their “complaints” in my head only to realize that they haven’t in fact “complained” at all. They’ve simply shared something that they’re finding hard. They haven’t requested a solution. They haven’t accused the world of being out to get them. They may simply be searching for a bit of acknowledgement and sympathy. Couldn’t we all use a bit more of that? So I can pause. I can catch their eye. And I can honestly say, “Yeah, what you’re doing is hard.”