Want to Raise a Problem Solver? Play the What if? Game

Problem solving is an important daily life skill that needs practice. As parents we often ‘fix’ our children’s problems. Sometimes it is to save time. Sometimes it is out of fear of our child getting hurt physically or emotionally. But we now know that as parents a gift we can give them is the opportunity to think out and solve problems on their own, and deal with the consequences – good and bad. This is how we build strong, resilient, confident kids.

It’s unfair to just assume that kids can do it all on their own just because they are of a certain age. Often we hear “He is 10 years old – he should have known better.” Well, maybe. But what have we taught that 10 year old to give him the skills to “have known better?”  We cannot teach our children everything. What we can do is give them a structure to help them think things through. You can practice this with them in a fun way and then when they are out on their own (at a friend’s house, at school, online) they can use these skills to help them make better decisions.

What is this structure you ask? It is the What if? Game.

 How To Play the What if ? Game

  • Teach from a place of fun not fear. Even if the topic you are discussing is scary to you – the goal is not to put fear into a child but to empower your child with confidence and skills.
  • Your reactions to your child’s answers matter. When your child shares their solution and it is off the charts a horrible choice (ex. I’d karate chop the bad guy!) don’t laugh and/or don’t over react with “No! that is totally not what you are supposed to do!”  Stay calm and say “that’s an interesting choice. Let’s think together of some other options.”
  • Play the game at random times. Don’t sit down and go through a ton of scenarios all at once. (What If? Game to Prep for staying home alone.)  Great times to play the What if? Game are in the car, at dinner, or while taking a walk.
  • For each of the What if? Game situations ask your child:  What would you feel? What would you think? What would you do ?
  • Let your child have time with each question.
    • What would you feel? Often children are not use to naming feelings. This is a great opportunity for them to start labeling their emotions. Here is an example: What if you see something online that you know is not for kids? What would you feel?  (Remember parent that there is no right or wrong answer when a child is describing their feelings. It is their feelings. Please do not say “You shouldn’t feel that way.”)  If they answer “I am going to get in trouble.”  Say, “that is what you are thinking. But what are you feeling inside?”  You might have to coach them at first. Writing a feelings chart can also be helpful – positive and negative feelings. You should listen for words such as “Yucky, scared, curious, excited, afraid, worried, nervous, confused.”
    • What would you think?  Once they are connected to their feelings you ask the second question. What would you think? This is usually something along the lines of  “I am going to get in trouble.” “I am worried that someone will get hurt.” “They shouldn’t be doing that.” “This isn’t a safe situation.” “I can handle this situation.” “Fire is dangerous.” “I don’t have to stay here.”
    • What would you do? Now that you have processed the first two questions it is time for action. Ask your child, What would you do?  Keep in mind that there is often more than one solution. If the solution they chose is not the safest and smartest, help them process other solutions. This is a great time to teach kids when and how to access help when needed as well as when to come to you to talk about things that are on their minds.

Have fun with this! Give your kids some power here too by letting them ask you some What if questions. Use it as teachable moments.

Here is a list of What if Game Scenarios to get you started!


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