How can I tell if a proposed solution is a real solution?

The shining eyes test

“My child and I had conflicting preferences and we looked at our respective reasons for what we each wanted, and I think we have now resolved the disagreement in a way that is not problematic. How can I tell if my proposed solution is not actually a real solution?”

The difference between a solution and not-a-solution can be seen on the faces and in the eyes of everyone involved.

Does someone’s face look half-hearted? Does your child’s face look a bit dejected? Crestfallen? Resigned (as in they have given up, as in “This is the best I can hope for given how intransigent my parent is being.”) What do their eyes say? Are their eyes not shining? Is their affect flat? Are they reluctantly going along with your idea while still hankering for a different outcome? Do you see a micro expression hint of anger or frustration pass across your child’s face? Do you yourself feel half-hearted, resigned, sad, grumpy, frustrated? Have you given up? Does it feel like a compromise in which each of you is suffering but the suffering is ‘fairly’ distributed? That is not a solution.

On the other hand:

Does the proposed solution spark joy? Is everyone beaming? Are our eyes all shining? Do you see delight? Joy? Animation? Skipping? The odd cartwheel, perhaps? Is it a “YES!!!!” all round? That suggests you have created a real solution.

If your child’s eyes are not shining, my guess is that you have inadvertently got your child to go along with a pseudo-solution instead of actually solving the problem. Sometimes we parents can feel so strongly about what we ourselves would find acceptable as a solution (our reasons are very important to us!) that we inadvertently bulldoze our children into going along with something that feels to them less undesirable than the first idea we had wanted to impose, but that still feels bad to them.

I mention this because you can find examples of such (well-intentioned!) pseudo-solutions on the internet and in books and other material intended to be advocating win-win solutions. In one example, the scenario presented was that one of the children kept staying out playing when it was dinner time. The mother found that problematic and invited the child to find a ‘win-win solution’ with her. The child did not want to cut short his playing and didn’t mind eating a cold dinner alone. The mother was absolutely not open to the idea of the child eating alone later (which I myself thought seemed like a fine solution) and did not state her reason for that intransigence. She merely said that the child’s sister needed to eat at that time.

To me, that seemed irrelevant! I am mystified as to why both children must eat at the same time every day without fail. When I was a child, I or one of my siblings might well be out at ballet lessons or something when most of our family were eating dinner. I love relaxed, convivial family dinners, and fondly remember the interesting conversations we had at many of them, but maybe we would not have been having those enjoyable conversations if my parents had been rigid about everyone eating dinner together every evening.

So what was the not-really-win-win pseudo-solution the mother and son arrived at? She was willing to make the family dinner 15 minutes’ later so that her son could stay out for 15 minutes longer than she had initially wanted (meaning he would now be coming home earlier than he had been doing) – as long as he would stick to that ‘agreement’ and not stay out playing for longer.

Perhaps my reading of the scenario is mistaken, and the writer was envisaging the son leaping for joy at the idea of being allowed to stay out for 15 minutes’ longer than the original strict dinnertime had allowed, but that was not apparent in the scenario as written. To me, it looked more like the son resigning himself to cutting short his playtime because his mother was wedded (or indeed welded) to the idea that the family must all eating dinner together every day come what may.

Creating a solution that passes the shining eyes test1 often involves questioning everything – including our fixed ideas about mealtimes, all eating together every day, and so on.

To get more of a feel for what this means in real life practice, and how families go about resolving conflicting preferences in a way that passes the shining eyes test, see: How do you solve problems where there is a conflict of interest?


1. With thanks to the amazing Benjamin Zander, whose not-to-be-missed Ted talk inspired this post.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘How can I tell if a proposed solution is a real solution?’,

Leave a comment