The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Child psychologist: This is how to raise human beings who are ready for the real world


People are a little worried about the human species these days. Maybe it’s the rash of terrorist attacks throughout the world. Maybe it’s the tone of the presidential campaign. Maybe it’s because so many of us are suffering from a nasty case of empathy fatigue in response to the horrors humans inflict upon each other with troubling regularity. Maybe it’s the data telling us that college students are significantly less empathetic and significantly more narcissistic than their predecessors.

Something’s missing here, and it’s our humanity, the very traits that define the more positive side of our species. Characteristics such as empathy, appreciating how one’s behavior is affecting others, resolving disagreements without conflict, taking another’s perspective and honesty. As David Brooks writes in The Road to Character, it’s easy to lose track of the importance of those characteristics in a busy, distracted, puffed-up, achievement- and status-obsessed world. And it’s easy to forget that our kids need us to teach those skills explicitly, model them and give them lots of opportunity for practice.

5 things that can make you a better parent right now

Are the ways in which we’re parenting, teaching, disciplining, and interacting with our kids — the next generation of human beings — teaching and modeling those skills? A lot of popular parenting strategies — the ones that involve the imposition of adult will and that many parents apply almost automatically — don’t. Strategies such as timeouts, counting to three, sticker charts, privilege gain and loss are all unilateral strategies that emphasize compliance with adult directives and rely on power to achieve one’s goals.

Is there another option? I advocate for a shift away from power and toward collaboration as the primary means by which parents influence kids. Giving a kid a voice in his or her own affairs, and in solving the problems that affect his or her life, is actually excellent preparation for The Real World; much better preparation than blind adherence to authority.

I’ve been applying the very same model, called Collaborative & Proactive Solutions, to behaviorally challenging kids for a very long time. But I also understand that this is scary territory for many parents, who worry that they’ll lose control and authority if they move from power to collaboration, that all of their expectations will be abandoned. Control is an illusion, of course; no parent has control over a child’s outcome. The best you can shoot for is influence. Caregivers have a lot more influence, and their voices have a greater likelihood of being heard, when they’re hearing kids’ voices and involving kids in solving the problems that affect their lives.

As far as expectations go, it’s impossible to parent without them. It’s when your child is having difficulty meeting an expectation that you have a problem to solve. It’s how you solve those problems, unilaterally or collaboratively, that makes all the difference.

How does one solve a problem collaboratively? The process, which is far more effective when used proactively, consists of three steps: The Empathy step is where caregivers gather information from a child so as to understand the child’s concern, perspective or point of view on a given unmet expectation. The Define Adult Concerns step is where the caregivers enter their concerns into consideration. The Invitation is where child and adult are working toward a mutually satisfactory solution, one that addresses the concerns of both parties.

Here are key points to remember when using the model:

Unmet expectations are predictable: Kids and parents argue about the same unmet expectations every day without resolving anything. You might want to make a list of the expectations your child is having difficulty reliably meeting. Every unmet expectation on your list is predictable, and that makes it possible to discuss and resolve them proactively.

You’re not giving in, you’re solving problems: You’re doing it collaboratively with your child. You don’t lose any authority when you’re solving problems that way, but you do gain a problem-solving partner.

All three steps are really important: If your child’s concerns aren’t identified and clarified, the problem won’t get solved. If your concerns aren’t identified and clarified, the problem won’t get solved. If the solution doesn’t address the concerns of both parties, the problem definitely isn’t solved.

You’re not just solving a problem, you’re raising a human being: Solving the problems that are causing conflict between you and your child will certainly reduce conflict. But there’s more than just problem-solving going on in those three steps. In the Empathy step, your child gets practice at identifying and voicing his or her concerns (crucial life skills), and you get practice at listening (another crucial life skill). In the Define Adult Concerns step, your child gets practice at empathy, taking another’s perspective, and appreciating how his or her behavior is affecting others (more crucial skills), and you get practice at articulating concerns rather than solutions. And in the Invitation, you and your child get practice at exploring alternative solutions, ensuring that those solutions are mutually satisfactory, and resolving disagreements without conflict.

Conflict between you and your child is not an inevitable part of parenting: Not if you’re partnering on solving problems.

Make it the norm: Don’t solve problems collaboratively every so often or only when unilateral solutions have failed. The process can be messy and hard. The skills you’re working on are worth the effort.

Dr. Ross W. Greene is the author of “Raising Human Beings,” “Lost and Found,” “Lost at School” and “The Explosive Child.” Greene was on the faculty at Harvard Medical School for more than 20 years, and is now founding director of the nonprofit organization Lives in the Balance (, which provides a vast array of free, Web-based resources on the model of care — now called Collaborative & Proactive Solutions — described in his books. He’s on Twitter @drrossgreene and Facebook.

Join On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and advice. You can sign up here for our newsletter and can find us at

You might also be interested in:

How to handle oldest child’s “selfish” behavior

This 4-year-old has tantrums. How patient should a parent be?

Can we help our children be motivated to succeed?