Domo arigato, Mom-jerk Roboto

[First: Before you ask, yes, the party was a success, I think. Otto had a grand time, his brothers enjoyed meeting all of the folks Otto is always talking about, the crock of spinach artichoke dip was all but licked clean (it’s the jalapenos! brilliant!!), and I’m equal parts glad we pulled it off and glad I hopefully won’t have to do this again for another 10 years.]

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my dozen years of parenthood, it’s the golden mantra of “Don’t engage.” Okay, that sounds bad. I don’t mean never engage with the kids, of course, I just mean to not engage when it’s only going to be an argument, or take you down the path of doing what you said you wouldn’t, or just plain make the top of your head blow off like in the cartoons when flames shoot out of someone’s eyes and/or ears. There are countless “we’ve had this argument before” situations that crop up with both kids where I know deep in my heart I should just BACK OFF lest it turn ugly. Still, my track record for said backing off is… not the greatest.

That said, when I find a strategy for disengagement that works, I tend to stick to it. And by “works” here we understand that to mean “allows me to move on.” It may not actually work for the kids. Because the children very much enjoy the arguing and the back and forth and the eventual eruption of my skull.

Now. When it comes to Monkey’s shortcomings, I would love to tell you that I’m endlessly patient, but that would be a lie. HOWEVER, many of his most aggravating behaviors are a direct result of or relating to his Asperger’s, so while I frequently see red over the many, MANY objects in this house which have been damaged or destroyed by his obsessive picking at or improper usage of things, or get upset because sometimes he cannot follow more than two directions in a row, I also know that he may not entirely be able to help it. So I have no real strategy for him right now other than to ask him to repeat directions back to me and then take a lot of cleansing breaths when he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to or I’ve found yet another scene of carnage.

Chickadee, on the other hand, is in 7th grade. She is both neurotypical and a smarticle. She’s nearly a teenager, and a highly capable one, at that. I expect more from her. This is DEEPLY DISTRESSING because it’s NOT FAIR, you know. (When she gets to do things Monkey doesn’t, funny, she never complains about that. But when I expect things from her I don’t from him? SO MEAN!)

I am accustomed to all of this, of course, due to years of the children beating down my morale experience. But lately Chickadee’s behavior has taken an alarming turn. Tell me, fellow parents of nearly-teens: Is it normal, at this age, to spontaneously develop an attitude of utter helplessness? I want to call it “learned helplessness” but so far as I know, no one has been administering an electric shock to her every time she reaches for the hummus, so I have no idea where it came from or why. All I know is that one day, she suddenly reverted to being three years old whenever faced with the slightest difficulty.

On the computer: “This font is all wrong! I don’t want this font!”
In front of the mirror: “My hair is all weird! It won’t stop being weird!”
At dinner: “But I need sour cream! I don’t like this without sour cream!”

And bear in mind, these are not random declarations of frustration, followed by action; these are pronouncements of THE SADNESS OF THE WORLD, followed by a period of expectancy during which, one assumes, my darling child is waiting for her minions to produce a solution just to assuage her displeasure.

One day—I can’t even remember what the particular issue was at that time, because THERE ARE SO MANY—she was doing that helpless toddler routine and I snapped at her, “CHICKADEE! Be a PROBLEM SOLVER!” She looked at me in surprise, as if I’d just suggested she fix the current disaster by eating a large steak while dancing a jig. So I followed it up with, “You have a problem. Do you want to be the kind of person who stands around whining about having a problem, or do you want to be the kind of person who figures out how to fix that problem? Solve it. You’re smart. Figure it out!”

This went over really well, because nearly-teens LOVE IT when you tell them to do it themselves, PARTICULARLY when whatever the “it” is is something that’s pissing them off. Trust me!

While Chickadee’s response to my suggestion was somewhat lackluster, I cannot even begin to express to you the freedom that issuing this directive made me feel. Suddenly I realized that I AM BRILLIANT. She IS smart. She CAN solve these things. And when I tell her to “be a problem solver” I am DISENGAGING from the drama du jour AND fostering independence. (Plus, we get a few shades of The Princess Bride going, too, as she will often snap in exasperation, “STOP SAYING THAT!!”) (Why yes, I do respond with, “Start solving, then.” Don’t you wish I was YOUR mom?)

In short, I am the greatest parent on the planet. (Also: humble. Don’t forget about how humble I am.)

Some might argue that such sage advice is best swallowed in moderation, but screw moderation, man. If my kid is going to lament her various injustices fifty times a day, you’re damn skippy I’m going to turn to her and intone, “Be a problem solver!” all fifty times. If nothing else, it shows her just how often she is playing victim, and it reminds me to WALK AWAY.

Last night Chickadee was slaving away on a school project, by which you understand that actually, she was chatting with her friends on the computer when she was supposed to be working. And then bedtime came along, and she still needed to get a bunch of subject kits ready to take to school to run her science experiment today, and my patience was running short. I wanted her to finish up and get to bed.

Now, on the last several rounds of science fair hell fun, I have helped her with prep. On this very experiment, in fact, where she needs tiny containers of liquids poured out, labelled, and lidded, I have been known to step in and help. But yesterday she had just aggravated me one too many times, and when she asked me if I would get her stuff ready, I said no. “You need to do it, and you need to get to bed,” I told her.

So it was with great huffing and stomping that she began to lay out her materials and fill containers, and it was one thing after another. First she spilled some, and it was “The counter’s all wet and sticky!” Then it was, “I need my response forms. Where are my response forms??” And as Otto, Wild Thing and I sat lounging in the family room, I went on autopilot and called out, “Be a problem solver, Chickadee!” once, twice, three times.

And then Otto made a marvelous discovery—a greeting card brought to him during the previous night’s festivities, formerly lost in the shuffle. He read the cover, opened it, and began to cackle. The giver of said card had either not realized it was a talking card or assumed it was a talking card with a preset message; as it was, when he opened the card, it said, “Hi! I’m a talking card! Simply press the button to record your message!” After we had a couple of chuckles at the giver’s expense (sorry), the only possible course of action was clear.

Otto brought the card to me and pressed the button. I boomed—in my most robotic voice—“BE. A. PROBLEM. SOLVER!”

Immortalized, for all of eternity. Or until the battery runs out.

For the remainder of the evening, whenever Chickadee complained about anything, Otto flipped the card open so she could hear the magic words. I was seriously beginning to fear she was going to strangle both of us in our sleep tonight when I was playing with the dog and said (as one does), “Licorice! Where’s your ball? Where is it? Where’s your ballballballball??” This is Licorice’s cue to go find her ball and bring it for a game of fetch. (Game of fetch = Licorice just wants to chew on the ball, but we repeatedly wrench it from her jaws and throw it, forcing her to go get it and give us dirty looks.)

Licorice stood there, looking at me expectantly (like maybe I had the ball and was about to throw it), when Chickadee called from the kitchen in a syrupy tone: “LICORICE! BE A PROBLEM SOLVER!!”

So I guess I can’t be scarring her TOO badly, right?


  1. Leandra

    Bwahahahaha! I love it! And I’m totally stealing this for my daughter who is 5 but occasionally acts like she’s 3. Hey, you can’t start too soon, right?

  2. hokgardner

    I so love the card solution. And I am totally stealing your “Be a problem solver” line when my almost teen starts whining.

  3. Otto

    You do know, since we have three Syracuse University degrees between us, the most important birthday will be 44 … right?


    PS: I am not a problem solver, am I?

    PPS: It was a wonderful party, thank you very much. You are my favorite.

  4. Karen

    Oh, I am SOOOOOO stealing that technique. I’ll let you know if it works on a 14 year old.

    I clicked on the artichoke spinach dip, but it said page error. I’m drooling over here and my recipe quite frankly sucks, would love to try yours.

  5. Katherine

    I love the “be a problem solver”. I’m going to have to try it on my teen. I’m not crazy to think that a 14 yo boy, when hungry, can fix himself something to eat. But no, he whines about it. My response has usually been – there is the kitchen. It is where we keep food. Go fix something. But it seems to be “tooooo haaaarrrd”. So, go hungry.

    I don’t harbor any real hopes that “be a problem solver” will actually solve the problem anytime soon (I’m hoping college will solve that one), but it will at least be different.

  6. Jenn

    Love that! I’ve been trying to teach my 8-year-old how to solve her own problems. She’s a bit of a princess, being a “lonely child” and all.

  7. heather

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who gets great amusement from mocking a kid who is misbehaving! LOL

  8. dad

    At least you have proof positive that she is not totally tuning you out.

  9. Jenn C.

    I too, am stealing your line. I love it, and since there is NOTHING that drives me more crazy than people who whine and expect other people to solve their problems, I am absolutely going to need something to counteract it with Ms. H.

  10. Groovecatmom

    Be a problem solver–love it. It’s easier to say that than my usual, “What other ways could you deal with this situation?” and then discuss. And my daughter and your daughter are long-lost cousins. From tween angst drama camp. The attitude, it shocks. My mother told me I was lucky to make it to my 14th birthday, and I believe her.

  11. Billie

    My 10 yo son has started having this same problem in the last few months. My response is usually, “Seriously! You can’t reach the bowl in the cabinet that you got just fine yesterday?” or “I’m juggling 10 things here and you want me to stop what I’m doing to get you a spoon?!!?!!?” Totally stealing your line!! :)

  12. Mare Martell

    As I sit reading this, my Chihuahua Piggy Suey, is sitting on my lap. She’s very attention hungry lately. She started to cry. I told her, “Be a problem solver!” She looked up with me baffled at my solution to her problem, but she quit crying.

    If it works on a little neurotic dog, I’m sure that it will work on my teenage son. He has a tendency to be as needy as my little dog. Coming from the abusive home he did, he has a lot of hangups about boundaries. He is in constant need for questions to be answered that I’ve answered a billion times before in the short time he’s been here. I almost can’t wait until he asks me yet another question!

    I’m glad Otto’s party was a success. I’m glad you were able to surprise him. Just remember, in ten years, you may not want to surprise him so thoroughly. We love Otto, don’t scare him to death. :-)

  13. elz

    Your parenting advice is the best ever! I’m filing everything away for the future years when I need them. Love it.

  14. My Kids Mom

    First, I will be using that phrase. Probably today.

    Second, when my oldest (now 9) was in 2nd grade, I found that he’d forgotten things– like, how to survive. What do do when his pencil fell on the floor- how to open a door that was locked- what to do when I said to put on shoes and he was without socks. Anyway, I read an Ask Moxie blog post about how kids his age were having a brain reorientation (or something like that). The information that had been so accessible was no longer right there and new neuron connections had to be made. Maybe I’m remembering it wrong, but it made me realize that what he was doing was normal. He did need to be treated like a toddler again. So, I backed off a bit and tried to give him simple, one step directions and wait until he responded before tackling more.

    My point is, I can see how puberty could involve another brain reorientation, and another setback for a while. It’s a guess and is totally unsubstantiated by science, but still, it might help to know that she’s normal. Or might be normal.

  15. Headless Mom

    “Be a problem solver.” That’s a good one. You needed the tm symbol for that one, I think you’re going to need it. I’m totally stealing it, btw, seeing as you had no tm symbol this time. Heh.

    Oh! That Otto is a real card. However, you do have good surprise experience. We’d hate to let it go to waste, right?

  16. Amanda


    Do you think it will work on a 4yo boy who is prone to the drama?

  17. Em

    Nothing makes me want to help my kids less than when they sit there and expect me to help them. I think that sounds kind of heartless but hi! I’m heartless. I want them to be so surprised and grateful that I am making faint little pencil lines on their poster board so their sentences stay straight and when they walk into a clean bedroom, I want them to not notice all of the stuff I threw out and just jump up and down that someone else cleaned it for them. I would.

    “Be a problem solver” might be the new parenting phrase to replace all old parenting phrases. Good bye “Because I said so!”. Good bye “Get your finger out of there!”. Goodbye “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?”. There is a new sheriff in town.

  18. Denise

    You are indeed BRILLIANT! Looking back to the time when my daughter dearest was Chickadee’s age, I wish I had thought of your line. I’m afraid that many times my response was to give in and do her majesty’s bidding just to keep the peace. Said daughter is now 31… she’s a problem solver and hard worker in spite of my unwillingness to make her responsible for working through so much of her drama. You’re a great mom….hugs!

  19. Nancy R

    If you got a problem
    YO Go solve it

    The parental reincarnation of Ice Ice Baby

  20. Lisa

    Oh how I wish I had learned this ages ago when I was a young, stupid single parent.

    An example of why every parent should learn this technique: Your smart, beautiful 18 year-old daughter moves away to a college over 90 miles from home. Hurray, you think, the child has flown the nest and all that. Adulthood, ho! And then the phone calls start. “How do I …?” “But I caaaan’t …” insert activity here. And my personal favorite: “I can’t find a parking place.” What part of I CAN’T HELP YOU WITH THAT is not clear?

    And no, in case you were wondering, this is not a hypothetical situation. Go me.

  21. Annette

    Sounds like a Love and Logic response. I use stuff like that all of the time.
    Reminding my kids that I have already passed 5th grade. Asking what they are going to do about that when they present a scenario that basically they created( forgotten book at school, etc). And asking how do you think that will work out when they present a solution that I know wll not work. It is exhausting:(

  22. Ginnie

    Mir, just know that you are not alone. My 13 year-old daughter wrestles with the same sort of dilemmas as Chickadee, and you and I could be cut from the same cloth as I have zero sympathy or patience for any of it. My response to her is always, “Well, what’re you gonna do about that?” Like you said, it removes me from situation (a good thing) and forces her to decide how to handle it (an even better thing).

  23. Mamadragon

    My husband can totally wire that “BE A PROBLEM-SOLVER” chip into whatever you desire. That’s how he got his gun-case to say “Git ‘er done” in Larry the Cable Guy’s voice when he opens it. I’m thinking it’s inappropriate to have parental instructions emanating from a gun case; maybe he could put it into the fridge door for you? Chickadee’s bedroom door? The laptop?

    Think on it, you can get back to me when you’ve decided on the perfect place for it.

  24. Amy

    Last year, when I simultaneously was teaching middle school kids and then coming home to my 3-year-old daughter, I realized that 3-year-olds and 13-year-olds are THE SAME. There was no escaping the helpless whining! Now my daughter is 4 and I actually do tell her to solve her own problems too! When your 4 your problems are pretty small (“I’m thiiiirstyyyyy” is met with “so how are you going to solve that problem?”), but it’s the same idea.

  25. suzie

    Oh, I’ve been telling my now-14 yo to “find a solution” since she was melting down at age 3. Of course, her ideas about what a “solution” is has evolved over time. Although, so has the topics of her meltdowns …

    Yesterday, we thought one of our too-young-to-go-outside kittens snuck out an open door, and said 14 yo inexplicably curled up into a ball on the floor and started wailing … kind of uncharacteristic and ridiculously unhelpful. I sent her to look around the house for the little fuzz ball, but she was having a hard time seeing through her histrionics. So I found the kitten (in the bathroom … not in the wilds of Massachusetts), and then returned to the puddle that was my usually capable 14yo and gave her a little chat about the uselessness of that behavior …

    Oh, wait – did I just say “it only gets worse from here”? Sorry. Not what I meant ;)

  26. suzie

    Oh, and! My husband and I both had our birthdays this weekend. I’m still 2 shy of my 40th, but my husband is ON NOTICE! A party shall happen.

  27. Jen

    I’m afraid I must bow to your momness this morning. I am stealing this and using it NONSTOP from now on. The boys are 9 and 6 and hand to GOD I may kill them if they don’t start figuring out how to solve their own problems. I mean, I know gifted kids are wired differently, but dang…
    Heh…methinks I need to put a talking card on today’s Target list. ;)

  28. Randi

    I think it’s finding ingenious solutions, like your problem solving mantra (ha, recording it in the card – genius!) that helps us raise our kids. Our friends were over on Saturday, and they have a 13 year old who constantly thinks she’s smarter than her parents. They were getting ready to leave and she was faking sleep – interesting, I thought, for a 13 year old. Her mother was getting mad, stomping her foot and saying, quite loudly, “COME ON!! Your father’s getting the car ready we HAVE TO GO.” I shushed her up, motioned her aside, and went for supplies. Then I jumped on the bed she was sleeping on, pulled the covers back, and immediately dumped ice down her back.

    She was up, laughing, and ready to go in a heartbeat.

    Who said parenting can’t be fun?! LOL

  29. Katie

    I’m totally gonna try this on both my 4 year old and my husband. Let’s see if it works!

  30. beth

    My phrase for this is “Light a candle!” from the expression that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Or if the kid is just moaning about the world, I’ll ask if I should help curse the darkness or if they want to light a candle.

    But I haven’t tried the recorded version. That sounds great.

  31. Heather

    I think I’m going to have to use that line on MYSELF! ;) Also, I cannot believe Chickie’s in 7th. 7th graders kind of terrify me :P

  32. Katie in MA

    Snark and a good sense of humor – two things without which we’d never survive those teen years. :)

    And if she’s already figured out that laughing about something might not FIX something, but at least gets you through it, she is a problem solver, indeed!

  33. Tracy B

    I wish I would have read this post 10 years ago when my daughter put me through Science Fair Fun. But I can’t pass the advice on to my daughter when she has her own daughter because well….she will deserve whatever my “unborn granddaughter” puts her through. lol

  34. Lori N

    Love it! Going to add it to my mantra of “you choose how you react to things/you can change your moods” — and no, I’m not as pretty with the word smith-ing as you are…look, something shiny!

  35. diane

    “My Kids Mom” had an interesting response. I was about to play armchair psychologist and say I imagine when a kid feels like they are growing up and maybe don’t want to, they might revert to more “child like” behavoirs. But, hey, I’m not a parent. I just play an adolescent psychologist on tv.

  36. Virginia

    I think “be a problem solver” is a wonderful way to respond, if you let her solve her own problems. My mom was totally controlling, so I was only allowed to solve my problems her way. This wasn’t so useful. Just remember that when Chickadee is going about solving her problems in a way that isn’t so logical–she can’t solve her own problems and do what you want at the same time!

  37. Dave

    My response to all unnecessary whining (mine are 13 and 14) is “That’s an interesting problem. When you figure it out, please let me know how you decided to solve it.”

  38. Lynne

    This may seem kind of dark but thought I’d share. My Mom used to say ‘Pretend I’m dead!’ when we acted helpless/asked stupid questions, etc. She was 16 when her own mother passed away, so it seemed…not so weird. Unlike now.

  39. jessica

    Whoa, that is perfect! I need that when I’m at work: “I can’t get my locker open!” Be a problem solver! “I forgot my homework and need you to call my mom.” Be a problem solver! (I’m not really hard-hearted, but seriously, you forget your homework and want me to call your mom? Not happening. It’s not in my job description, and we have a student phone right over there.)

  40. Megan

    Just something the comment about ‘brain reogranization’ made me think of…
    If you have secondary trauma, there is a good chance that chickadee carries some of that… since you are a great Mom she has, I’m sure, had many appropriate oppurtunities to process that stuff… but right now there is a lot of stress going on in your life… which she is probably also picking up on… and that can trigger us to past times when there was a lot of stress…. And as my supervisor (at my job where I help families with relationship building all freaking day long) would say ‘when we stress, we regress’, could be some of the explanation for the learned helplessness stuff… maybe I am totally wack-a-doo here… but that is just what I though of….

  41. Wendy

    I LOVE IT. I may have to steal that and use it on my 14 year old. She still pulls that.

  42. Debra

    Okay, I think that’s pretty normal. (The 42 responses above mine? I didn’t read. So I’m sorry if this is a repeat)

    I used to just say “Okay” or “Awww, that’s too bad.” And just leave it at that.

    Great use of the card and yes, my daughter would love for you to be her mother and quote Princess Bride and Monty Python at her.

  43. Darcy

    Oh my gosh what a great way to deal with the situation! I am going to pocket that sentiment for when my little newborn gets there, hahahah!

  44. mamaspeak

    I have the 7yo of which “my kids mom” speaks of. This year has been driving me nuts w/my “preshus babah” turning into this needy, emotional mess. And your response, Mir? Is exactly what I needed! It probably won’t make the situation better, but it takes me off the hook.

  45. Brigitte

    @ Debra (#43): my response is close, I usually just say “bummer.”

    Or sometimes I whine back that it’s “too haaaard” to reach the chocolate milk that’s right in front of her and hand it to her (or whatever similar issue she’s whining about).

    And mine’s only 6 (shudder)!

  46. Karen

    “Be a problem solver” sounds so much more positive than my “THAT is an insurmountable problem!” response to my 13 year old daughter’s helplessness. When she had insurmountable as a vocabulary word a couple of weeks ago she accused me of being in cahoots with her language arts teacher.

  47. Alison

    LOVE IT! I am going to borrow this for my daughter who is 5. She frequently laments her fate in the world when chores are involved and awaits her minions to come and save her!

  48. mamalang

    I use this sort of line, only mine is less smarticle sounding. Mine is “You need to figure it out.” Boy, I think her eyes might just roll into her brain with that one.

  49. MomCat

    Mmy mother always said that as soon as kids are big enough to actually help with things, they suddenly lose the inclination. She was so right. It’s so much easier to order mom around, so why make the effort? My 16yo has exhibited that behavior just a few times…(every day). Great problem solving, Mir!

  50. Little Bird

    My step-fathers response to this would have been “Buck up f*&^% nose”
    I am not kidding. While on one hand it’s funny and usually made me laugh, I also found it incredibly callous. Of course…. I didn’t have a diagnosis then, so he couldn’t have understood.

  51. Julie from The Party Blog

    LMAO!!!! Now THIS was probably the funniest blog I’ve read all year!

    We’re having the same types of problems with our 12 yr old monkey. Must be something about Monkeys going through puberty :) He whines CONSTANTLY about EVERYTHING!

    Typically when he does his homework I’m sitting here reading blogs at the dining room table. So you can guess that I busted a gut when I read this one! He asked what was funny but I blew it off saying it was nothing. He then proceeds to submit his entry for this years’ Academy Awards by whining about how tired he is and how much he has to get done.

    Guess what I said? LOL…that went over well :) But…thanks for giving me something to diffuse the situation and disengage myself. I needed this today!

  52. KMayer

    Don’t engage will serve you well as you navigate the teen years…and as your hsb navigates the perimenopausal years! And don’t forget “don’t engage” for wacked parents that 1. share dirty looks at check out in Target and 2. Parent teenagers much differently than you will (tough stuff will happen, trust me). Just pick up your kid (from both situations) and DON’T ENGAGE with the losers.

  53. Rachael

    OMG, Mir. I needed that huge, huge laugh. It somehow destressed my day. Sounds like a solid case of female hormones at work. Try female hormones + learning disability + mental retardation + meltdown city over the craziest things (ie: her brother opened the door with the key yesterday and she wanted to do it so she stood in front of the door and refused to move until her dad yelled at her to move and she broke down in a huge fit of bawling/screaming/whining). Sigh.

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