Try this the next time your children come to you with a complaint or a problem that isn’t completely outside of their ability to solve: Listen without interrupting, take a moment to acknowledge their emotional state (“I can tell that you’re mad”), and then offer this question, “What are you going to do?”

Mother and child

In my experience, this is one of the more powerful “lines” a parent can use. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least used.

Why is that and why is this question so different from what we usually say to children? If you’re like most parents, limiting yourself to this one simple question can be a real challenge. But packed within this question are multiple, potent messages.

Most of the messages are for children:

“I’m aware that you have a problem and I’m curious about how you’re going to solve it.  I’m not giving advice or fixing the problem because I truly believe you can solve it on your own.  I also know that you’re upset.  That’s certainly understandable.  But strong feelings don’t entitle you to act badly or to simply fall apart.  Even when you feel upset, you can still act in a way that is right, more times than not.  I will be here to support you, but I’m going to wait and see what you do before I offer to help.”

There are also messages for parents themselves:

“My child is upset and confused.  It worries me to see her struggle, but my own distress is no reason to take on her problems.  I’ll fight the urge to fix her problem so I can give her an even greater gift.  It is the gift of her parent witnessing her persistence and celebrating her success when she overcomes the problem on her own.  It may seem like I’m not helping, but the truth is I’m helping in a different way, a better way.”

This least used but most useful parenting line assumes you help your children when you equip them with the capacity to solve problems on their own. Yes, helping and teaching and pushing are ways to do that, but children also need the ability to stop and think their way through a problem. If you’re a parent who frets about whether your children can fend for themselves or a parent who pushes hard so children will always fend for themselves, this line, along with the acknowledgement of their emotional state, can serve you quite well. Give it a try!

By the way, here are some other useful but seldom used parenting lines.  Like “What are you going to do?”, each of these lines carries potent messages for both parents and children.

  • “This has been a rough day for you.”
  •  “Is there something you would like me to do?”
  • “We probably won’t agree on this, but here’s how I see it.”
  • “I didn’t know that about you.”
  • “You really don’t like my rule.”
  • “I’ve been thinking about what you said the other day…”