Problem Solving Hacks I Learned from My 3-Year-Old

Frankie encounters a challenge.

Frankie encounters a challenge.


It’s commonly said that children are the best teachers. One of my therapists (I have two!) frequently reminds me that my daughter, Frankie, is my ‘little guru.’ She’s got all the wisdom she needs, and it’s not tainted by other people’s opinions, an inner critic, or a bend toward ‘reality’ or pessimism that develops over time. Instead, she’s entirely living in the mindset of what’s possible -- anything(!) is possible, and there’s a palpable joy in simply being curious. 

If I’m stuck on one of my narratives or can’t seem to move past an obstacle on my way to my goals, my therapist will remind me to ask myself, ‘how would Frankie handle this situation?’ 

I got a glimpse into this answer during a recent visit to the playground. Frankie absolutely falls into the category of risk taker, and she enjoys trying new things, especially on the playground. I took her to a playground we hadn’t been to before, that had a very high climb up to a delightfully rewarding twisting and turning bright green slide back down to the ground. 

Frankie wanted that slide. 

However, the steep climb up a fully vertical ladder was too much even for her. She got scared. And that’s okay! As I coached her through the process of getting up that ladder to the slide, I realized that she was teaching me some major lessons about encountering challenges, solving problems, and relishing success. 

Problem Solving Hacks I Learned from My 3-Year-Old

So, how did Frankie tackle this problem in a way that helped her meet her goal within minutes?  There were three key phases that led to her making substantial progress quickly.

She Acknowledged Her Feelings and Asked For Help

Upon reflection, I think the most important action Frankie took was, when part-way up the ladder, noticing she felt scared, openly acknowledging to me that she was scared, and then promptly asking for what she needed. 

None of this involved self-judgement on her part. 

She wanted to get to the top of the slide, and so she was going to remove any obstacle that got in her way. When she started to feel scared, she immediately held herself back. She listened to herself. She didn’t judge or shame herself for what she was feeling (as many of us are prone to do with emotions!). Instead, she felt it, named it, and told me about it. 

“Mommy, I’m scared. It’s too high. I need you to help me up the ladder.” 

It’s no surprise Frankie was scared; she’d never climbed up that high before. 

By being clear to me what she needed -- help her continue up the ladder -- it was very easy for me to be supportive, nurturing, and encouraging of her in support of her goals. I was thrilled she asked me for help and could be clear about what she wanted me to do. 

In that moment, I realized that I could have picked her up and carried her up the ladder, or done something beyond what she had asked for to ‘keep her safe.’ This would have done Frankie a disservice. She wanted me to put a hand on her back as she continued to climb. That’s it. No more, no less. In that moment, we were making a great problem solving team. 

She Slowed Down and Broke the Problem Down into Teeny Tiny Pieces

As Frankie continued up the ladder -- even with me behind her -- she got scared again. She had about 5 more rungs up the ladder remaining to get to the slide. At this point she looked back at me and said, “Mommy, I want to get down.” 

This was my opportunity to have a coachable moment with her. 

“Hang on,” I said. “Let’s stop and think about how we can do this a little different.” 

With that cue, Frankie paused and looked at her feet. After a few seconds she started climbing again, but with one key difference: instead of climbing up like you might walk up a set of stairs (one foot per step/rung) she let both her feet rest on each rung. She was moving much slower and making the smallest incremental progress toward her goal. And that’s the most important part -- there was always some (even a teeny tiny bit!) incremental progress being made. It took more time and her pace slowed down, and that didn’t matter! Frankie did not judge her process. Her process was exactly what she needed to get to her outcome -- the top of the ladder so she could reach the slide. 

And then…

She Celebrated Her Success

When Frankie reached the top of that ladder, she jumped up and down, beamed from ear to ear, and shouted “I DID IT!!!!” She was rightfully proud -- and so was I! She encountered a challenge, figured out how she related to it and what she needed, broke it down into actionable steps and conquered it within a couple minutes. In that moment, she was a problem solver extraordinaire! 

Frankie enjoyed a fast, winding trip down the big slide and clapped her hands in delight at the bottom. And then she got up that ladder again, this time with much more ease. She knew how to anticipate the height challenge and pace herself slower when she got there. Now the ladder is old hat. 

As I start this week, I am reminded that I will face many challenges in my personal and professional life, and each challenge will lead me to feel a particular way. Now I have some great guidance on how to notice it, own it, and use it to drive a self-supportive approach to moving through it. 

What are you doing to support yourself through your challenges?