5 Best Ways to Raise Problem Solvers

“Parenting or raising a child is an impossible profession. The most impossible profession. Number one, we raise children with the knowledge of the past. It’s already obsolete.”

This observation is made by infant specialist Magda Gerber in her video “Seeing Infants With New Eyes.” Noting the absurdity of raising children for a future that none of us can predict, Magda asks, “And then the question is, if we accept the absurdity, are there certain qualities — human qualities — that will be good for this great unknown future?”

One might not agree with Magda’s view that authenticity, inner-directedness, and what she referred to as a “realistic trust in the world” will always be useful to our children as they navigate the future. But there is one asset we can surely all agree on: problem solving. For as long as the human race exists, we can count on there being new challenges to face and dilemmas to solve. Problem solving abilities will ensure our children survive and thrive, both personally and as part of a community.

The good news: problem solving is yet another competency that our children seem to be born with, so we don’t need to teach this so much as protect and nurture it. Spend enough time observing babies and you’ll notice that they don’t expect life to be a cakewalk. They face physical, cognitive, creative, and social struggles readily when they are trusted to choose challenges for themselves. Practice breeds confidence, and here are the best ways to help children do that.

Be open to the possibilities and provide opportunities from day one

This does not mean expecting an infant to, for instance, self-soothe and then “leaving her to work it out” (a common misinterpretation of Magda Gerber’s approach). Being open to our babies means being attuned and mindfully present — really seeing them as competent individuals. It is noticing when they are working on grasping a toy or finding their thumb and then refraining from following our impulse to “help” when our intervention would defeat their process.  The key to gaining a high level of attunement is to practice sensitive observation (explained HERE). We observe and then, when in doubt, follow the magic word “wait.” We give our baby that extra moment he might need to figure out how to move his hand through the armhole of his onesie. When we wait, more is revealed.

We provide the opportunities needed for problem solving practice by slowing down to engage our babies’ participation in daily caregiving tasks and also by offering plenty of unstructured, child-directed play time. Mostly it’s about believing in each child’s unique problem solving interests and abilities, and the earlier we can do that, the better for our child.

As psychologist and author Madeline Levine explains in her New York Times essay “Raising Successful Children,” “The small challenges that start in infancy present the opportunity for “successful failures,” that is, failures your child can live with and grow from. To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life.”

Trust children, rather than imposing our own agendas

Allow children to address the problems that interest them rather than pushing, coaxing, testing, or creating artificial challenges. Here’s an illustration: in my set-up for one of my toddler groups years ago, I had placed some wooden puzzle pieces (the kind with the little knobs) in a bowl on a table next to the puzzle frames to which they belonged. But rather than putting the puzzle back together “correctly,” a two-year-old used the pieces in a manner I’d never have imagined possible. She carefully stacked them, balancing them on their knobs, one on top of the other, until she’d made a fragile tower of four. No more than the four would have held up, and in her experiment she seemed to recognize that. This toddler’s inventiveness and skill building could have been extinguished by an adult directing her to complete the puzzle the “right” way.

Social situations present a plethora of some of the thorniest problems to solve (many of which some of us still wrestle with as adults). Some kids are more interested in socializing then others. It’s an individual process. Siblings provide kids the benefit of a 24-hour learning lab. To help them gain confidence socially, children need our patience, trust, and consistent modeling of positive social behavior. And as with other types of problem solving, social problem solving is hindered by our adult agendas and projections (more on that HERE). When we stay of their way, our children’s solutions will often surprise us. Rachel shared her experience:

“Little win here.

My 4 year old autistic son had been carefully building an elaborate bridge with duplo.

His nearly 2 year old little brother has been feeling a bit out of sorts this morning. He charged in, and when my older son moved away from his creation, the little one stepped in and smashed it.

I held back my natural instincts to intervene.

I used your sportscasting technique (our speechie calls it “reflecting”) and then my older son quickly built up a new structure and invited his brother to smash it. They both giggled as this happened. They rebuilt it together and then smashed it down again. Once my younger son was happy and doing this activity by himself my older son moved to repair his bridge without interference.

Thank you for giving me the tools to allow them to sort this out themselves!”

Don’t invest in outcomes

It’s common for children to begin working on a task or issue and then drop it or shift gears, leaving it “unfinished.” As adults we tend to be more focused on getting to the goal, whereas our children have a process that is far more open and fluid. So a supportive parent can easily find him or herself more invested than the child is in resolving an issue. This occasionally happens with parents in my classes. They remain engaged after their children have moved on and might try to gently steer them back to finishing dressing the doll or opening the jar or giving the toy to the toddler that had politely asked for it a few times (but then also moved on!). I’ve never seen this work, but it does tend to leave parents a little dissatisfied with their kids. And what I’ve learned about kids is that they know it, and that doesn’t breed confidence.

It is challenging but rewarding to release our adult agendas and simply observe as our children practice problem solving. Lisa, shared her experience:

“I watched my 14 month old daughter “put on” one sandal for 35 minutes. She tried it mostly upside down, backwards and always on the wrong foot. She was enjoying trying to put it on – she wasn’t frustrated – and didn’t need me to fix anything. After a while, she looked up at me, put the sandal in her pocket and cracked up laughing. It was so simple and beautiful.”

Intervene as minimally as possible

Magda Gerber recommended beginning with the most minimal intervention and then gradually doing more as needed. Using the example of a child stuck as she’s climbing, here are some step by step guidelines:

1. Remain calm and spot sensitively but as nonchalantly as possible so as not to invite our child to jump to us, etc.

2. Acknowledge our child’s effort and feelings, perhaps with the reminder: “I’m here to keep you safe.”

3. Give verbal direction. “Can you bend this knee (gently touching knee) and reach your other foot down a bit?” Wait to see if she can do this. If not, proceed to #4.

4. “You are having difficulty with this… I’m going to help you bend this knee and reach your leg down to this bar below.” Always be ready to let go and let the child take it from there.

5. Let’s say our child freezes or panics, still upset, which usually means she’s tired or that someone has been taking her down too soon. “This is too difficult for you right now. I hear that. I’m going to pick you up.”

Be brave

“While doing things for your child unnecessarily or prematurely can reduce motivation and increase dependency, it is the inability to maintain parental boundaries that most damages child development. When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self.”    – Madeline Levine, “Raising Successful Children”


Here are some inspiring videos:

First, here’s a toddler struggling to use scissors. His mom Karen shows admirable restraint!

Karen also shared a video of her daughter problem solving:

Karen explains, “At first I didn’t know what she was doing, so I just waited and watched. Then I really wasn’t sure she could get out by herself. Have you ever been in one of those foam pits? They really are hard to get out of. But I tried to not intervene and give her a chance and I was surprised how well she did. That’s my girl!”

RIE educator and child development specialist Lisa Sunbury demonstrates minimal intervention in this video from “Trusting Baby to be a Problem Solver“. She notes, “There’s no mistaking the look of pleasure and pride R. experiences when she figures out what she needs to do, and does it, all on her own, with just a little support from me.”

“Self confidence, problem solving, competence, body and spatial awareness, resilience, trust, and language development. All of these grow and are strengthened through everyday interactions like this one.”  – Lisa Sunbury


Thank you to Lisa, Rachel, Amy Jane, Karen, and Lisa Sunbury for sharing your stories and videos!

For more, please check out Magda Gerber’s books, Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect

And my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting



(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. These are great suggestions for those with infants or who have been practicing RIE all along. What about older children who were not encouraged to develop problem-solving skills from the beginning? I know it’s never too late to try, but is there a window of opportunity here? My daughter is 20 months and I discovered RIE a couple months ago. She was a premature, high needs baby who cried A LOT. I was so exhausted and at my wits end after the first few months I would do anything to get her to stop crying. Of course if I was enlightened back then as I am now I wouldn’t have fixed every problem for her but needless to say my instincts failed me and here I am now with a cautious, easily frustrated toddler who gives up very easily. Do you have additional tips on how to undo unfortunate habits?

      1. Thank you, Janet! I thought I had read nearly everything you’ve written, but somehow I’d never come across that particular article which, along with your responses to the comments, I found helpful. Also, for some reason I found you referring to my 20 month old (whom I think of as a toddler) as a ‘baby’ comforting and it gave me hope that there’s time to change. After reflecting more, I honestly feel that even though I only discovered RIE recently I’ve embraced it wholeheartedly and while of course not perfect at executing all the principles and guidelines I’ve learned, I’ve made great strides in changing my old ways fairly quickly. I think my biggest frustration is with my daughter’s other caregivers — his father, grandparents, sitter, etc. Even strangers (everytime we go out some always says “she’s so shy” or feels the needs to comment on how small she is, most kids are able to do xyz by this age, etc) which doesn’t help. I [miraculously] got my husband to read both your books but he still helps, quizzes, and interrupts her a lot and feels the need to be stern with her when she’s being especially difficult and he’s had enough. The grandparents are a lost cause and the sitter has four kids of her own so is pretty set in her ways. I know that since I spend most time with her I have the most influence but I suppose it will be slower going considering our difficult first year and not having everyone else on board. She has also recently started getting very upset when her hands get the slightest bit dirty and is reluctant to touch anything unfamiliar (e.g. Play dough, new food textures etc) which I think stems from the sitter teaching her to say “eeeewww!” when her hands got dirty, because she (the sitter) thinks it’s cute and funny. Any thoughts on helping with sensory issues would be greatly appreciated.

        I know you recommend never turning down a request for help (which my daughter does a lot, in quite a defeatist way). So I try to offer guidance ( “what if you put your foot here?”) but what should I do if this just makes her more upset and/or she continues to ask for help?

        Thank you again for all your help and guidance. I would still be a lost mama had I not stumbled across your blog! My biggest regret in parenthood has been not finding you sooner.

  2. My apologies, the answer to my last question is in the post above. Thanks so much for your patience and understanding with all us sleep-deprived new parents 🙂

  3. What a great post. The videos really help get the idea across. Sharing!

  4. As for raising little problem solvers I like the approach of Summerhill school. The kids are free to do whatever they want but if one of them is a trouble maker, the rest kids and the teachers find the way out and help that kid to change his behavior. So kids are absolutely independent and they are reponsible for whatever they do. teachers just help them sometimes. Thank you for this post, it is really helpful! And I would gladly crawl among those foam pits myself, awww… 🙂

  5. Dear Janet,
    I have discovered your website last week and I am reading as much as possible every day. With some ideas I was familiar and to a certain point – not very advanced 🙁 – I have applied independent play and restraining from helping.
    I wanted to ask you if you have any article about a parent using RIE principles but any other caretaker using the common approach. I believe that even if I am the only one using these techniques, they will have a good impact, but I still get disappointed when I see other’s cutting my daughter’s opportunities to develop.
    An example would be that at 18 months Mirriam was able to go dawn the stairs alone. Then my mother started to help me by spending a few hours a day with her. Even if Mirriam was able to go dawn the stairs alone my mother didn’t let her do that because she was afraid – aaaaaah so selfish! – and now she does not want to do it anymore. Not even by the hand. I am extremely frustrated with my mother.
    What advice do you have for these situations? To keep her away from relatives that don’t want to improve their approach would seem a bit too much to me, but honestly I feel at times that I hate them.
    Thank you a lot for your advises, they will be like water in the desert

    1. This is exact same I’m going through right now with my parents, and as much as I try to talk and explain them what I’m trying to do and what benefits my daughter is like talking to a wall at times. Is quite infuriating

  6. Hi Janet, sending you a big hug from India. Your advice has probably not only provided me with the right tools to transform my parenting ideas into reality but it has also changed the way my husband and I look at parenting.

    Since, I have a few strong views on the mainstream/ factory school, I am working on building a community where my daughter can play/ learn and just be a baby.

    It would be great if you could guide me on creating a free space based on RIE principles. Also, while I have been practicing RIE with my 5 month old since day 1; the other parents haven’t been practicing. While, I will read your blogpost for parents who wish to change track, it will be great if you could let me know if any additional points to consider.

    I feel so blessed to have come across your work, I wish to make more and more parents in India realise the importance of RIE parenting.

    Many many Thanks!

  7. Ok, I’m all for problem solving and letting kids learn by trying. But the foam pit at a bouncy place is an exception that proves the rule. Haha. I’ve got 30 minutes with three kids at about 25 bucks. Please don’t make us wait 5 minutes while a tike cuts his/her teeth on getting out of a foam pit. Otherwise, great article.

  8. I’m really confused by this sentence, alarmed even; can you please elaborate? “One might not agree with Magda’s view that authenticity, inner-directedness, and what she referred to as a “realistic trust in the world” will always be useful to our children as they navigate the future. But there is one asset we can surely all agree on: problem solving.”

    Does that mean that the undergirding assumption that inauthentic, outer-directed, and distrustful children who problem solve is the formula for the future? Where does that leave us as humans? Perhaps I’ve been an expat in Ireland for too long and have lost touch with how people think in the US, and maybe the way to survive is to be an empty shell with a mask for others who can solve problems, but it seems to me, that having a grounding in who you are, and less inclined to sway with the ever-shifting vagaries of what people outside of you think is important is key for stable mental health! I’d love a clarification of that, both as a parent and as a human, as I think I will be leading my child down the path of authenticity and inner directed-ness as well! Also, as a first-generation kid in the US who did *not* have a ‘realistic’ trust in the world (my parents lived through war and fascism, and did not trust US capitalism either; called it a jungle without a safety net), I never felt safe in the US where my peers did. I think that feeling of safety or belief in the basic all-rightness in the world would have opened doors and allowed me to try things that I otherwise wouldn’t have as a child growing up in California. Please explain!

    1. Not sure where you’ve gone with this, but it seems you are misunderstanding. “Does that mean that the undergirding assumption that inauthentic, outer-directed, and distrustful children who problem solve is the formula for the future?” No, that’s not what I am saying. I’m acknowledging that Magda’s teachings promote values that not everyone agrees with as necessary for an unknown future. I happen to agree VERY MUCH with the importance of authenticity and inner-directedness, empathy, compassion and everything else that Magda stood for. But for those that don’t, they might at least agree that the world will always need people who can solve problems, because no matter what the world looks like in the future, there are sure to always be new problems to solve.

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