Does it work for us? Evaluating solutions when stakes are high.

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In Collaborative Problem Solving, we have what’s called the litmus test. It’s a critical part of the problem solving process, and helps us test and select potential solutions to see if they’re even worth trying. The litmus test is a series of five questions beg to be applied to each potential solution.

The test goes like this:

  1. Does it work for you (the kid)?
  2. Does it work for me (the adult)?
  3. Is it realistic or doable?
  4. Does it bring up any additional concerns that we should talk about?
  5. When can we come back and take a look to see if our solution worked?

It’s important that a solution pass each one of those criteria. If a solution fails, it’s not a great solution. If it doesn’t work for the kid, it’s not a great solution. If it doesn’t work for us, it’s not a solution. If it’s not even doable, it’s not even worth talking about cause it ain’t gonna happen. Every time we generate a possible solution (and remember, any idea is an idea worth testing!), we run it through the litmus test to see what happens.

Here’s an example of what I mean….

Bedtime at our house is 8:30 on school nights. What bedtime means is that you go to your room, you close the door, and then do whatever you want. The expectation is you make your way to sleep, but on the way you might read, play some card games, stare at the wall, whatever, as long as it’s not electronics.

I have a fiancee, and she is awesome. 12 agrees: she also thinks my fiancee is awesome. In fact, sometimes when my fiancee stays over, 12 has a hard time going to bed because she wants to spend time with her. 

One time, when my fiancee was over, 8:30 rolled around and instead of going into her room and closing the door, 12 left the door open and sat in the open doorway. Decidedly not the bedtime expectation. 

After a power struggle, I was able to get her into her room and said goodnight. The next thing she did was open the door and slam it as hard as she could. 

So I opened the door, I stepped in her room, got close to her on the ground and said, “kiddo, we don’t slam doors in this house,” and then I said something I was TOLD TO SAY by other parents. “If you do it again,” I continued, “I’ll take the door off its hinges.”

Woof. Now look, in my defense I was pissed off and grasping at straws and again, I WAS TOLD TO SAY THIS EXACT THING BY ANOTHER PARENT.

In Collaborative Problem Solving, one of our major goals is to be clear and transparent about which of our concerns are expectations and rules address. We need to know why our rules are the way they are, because if we don’t, we don’t really know if our rules should even be rules.

So, what were my concerns with the open door? The truth is that, in the moment, I had no idea. It took time and space to be able to sit down and actually think about what my concerns with her sitting in the doorway were. When I was able to do that, it came down to three things:

  1. I have a cat, and my cat has to be able to move freely from my room to the hallway at all hours of the night, because if she can’t, she’ll be pawing at the door or, more likely, sitting on my head meowing at me until I do something. It’s meowmageddon. This is a problem because my room is next to my kid’s room, and my kid sleeps with the light on. If my door is open and her door is open, then there’s just light flooding into my room all night long, and that doesn’t work for me.
  2. Our desktop computer is right outside 12’s room. So if I’m working on it at night and her door is open, then we’ll be in this weird situation where we’re just sort of staring at one another all night long, and that’s weird.
  3. 3. If you’re sitting in the doorway, you’re not going to sleep, and ultimately the point of bedtime is to go to sleep. 

Okay. Three pretty good concerns. Let’s run them through the litmus test:

1. Does it work for kiddo? 

Taking the door off its hinges is not surpassingly a non-starter with The Kid. First, she won’t have any privacy any more, and second… well it’s just rude. So our solution fails the first test. We’re off to a bad start. 

2. Does it work for me? 

Well, taking the door off it’s hinges might feel great from a place of righteous pettiness, but… if my concern is about light streaming in to my room and about sitting at my computer staring at the kid… well then taking the door off its hinges is a REALLY BAD SOLUTION because then NOTHING will be blocking the light. My solution fails the second test. Oof.

3. Is it realistic?

To be honest I don’t know how to take a door off its hinges. Next.

4. Does it bring any other issues up that we should think about? 

You mean aside from not knowing how to remove the door from its hinges? I mean yeah, there’s the privacy issue, the noise issue, plus won’t her stuff just start oozing out into the hallway? Also, where will I put the door? And then if it doesn’t solve the problem, where do I go from there?! Lots of new issues to solve with this brilliant solution.

5. When can we come back to see if our solution worked?

Yeah... we didn't make it this far because it turns out taking the door off its hinges was a garbage solution!

The litmus test is important. It’s important not only to help the kid learn to test their ideas, but to help US test OUR ideas, ESPECIALLY when we’re operating from a place of peak pettiness. Running through these questions help us get so much closer to solutions that actually work, and away from solutions that really don’t work for anyone (or solutions that work for one of us, usually the adult, and not the other, usually the kid).

Ed Morales is the only Certified Trainer of Collaborative Problem Solving in Minnesota. The litmus test is a component of Collaborative Problem Solving, which has been developed by Think:Kids. To learn more about Collaborative Problem Solving, contact us, or visit our Collaborative Problem Solving page to learn more about upcoming trainings.