Jan 302014 2 Responses

When to Teach Your Kid a Lesson

Parents are most likely to teach a lesson when frustrated.

Trip over the shoes and you call your daughter to the laundry room to show her where her shoes go.

Sit down on the wet toilet seat and you call your son to the bathroom to discuss proper lid etiquette. (Always up when peeing and always down when finished).

Have a bad day at work and you decide this is the night when your child should learn to stay in bed all night.

Whenever we are tired, angry, hungry, or frustrated, we are more likely to feel compelled to teach a lesson. It makes sense. When an incident happens, it seems best to take care of it at that minute. The issue is fresh on our mind, the problem is obvious to see, and the truth can be easily communicated.

Sometimes this is true. There are scenarios in which a lesson should be taught in the immediate moment, but that should be the exception, not the rule. (See: Why You Aren’t Getting What You Want)

In times when safety is at risk, when a lesson cannot be taught any other time, or when necessity dictates the moment, we should teach lessons in spite of our frustration or anger.

Yet more often, a lesson should not be taught when it’s most important to the parent; it should be taught when a child is most likely to learn.

Consider it:

Is a child more likely to learn when you are angry and they are scared, or when you are happy and they feel comfortable?

Are they more likely to learn in the moment when they can tell they have disappointed you, or without the guilt and shame of having just done wrong?

Is it easier to learn in response to a past mistake, or in preparation of a future event?

The time a parent wants to teach is rarely the moment when a child is most likely to learn. (See: Never Throw Your Fit When They Are Throwing Theirs)

While there are times in which a child should adjust, a majority of the time it is the parent who should change their time schedule.

By teaching at the wrong moment, parents are adding tremendous frustration to their job and stress to their children.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We can be aware of our tendency to teach out of anger and choose to wait for a better time.

By waiting, we can:

  • lower our frustration which in turn will lower our child’s anxiety
  • put the issue in proper context making it less likely that we will blow the issue out of proportion
  • consider the best way to teach the lesson rather than making everything about our frustration

Make It About Them…

The great danger in the way most of us parent is we can cause our children to believe that life is about the parent and our happiness. When we link their behavior with our negative reactions, we are unconsciously teaching them they can control our feelings. They can wrongly conclude that our happiness is based on their behavior.

When we choose to teach at a time when we aren’t angry and they aren’t scared, the teaching becomes about the child. It focuses on their behavior, their choices, and their ability to control their lives.

Teaching is not best accomplished when we desire to teach, but when our children desire to learn.

Of course, the age and situation play a major role in determining whether to use the moment or to wait. The older the child, the more useful waiting can be.

More important than whether or not to use the moment is a proper reflection on our emotional state and the emotional state of our children.  The greater our level of frustration, the more likely our need to pick a different time to teach the lesson.

A Time to Learn and a Time to Grieve…

The lesson was driven home to me over the past few months with Silas. Following the death of his grandfather, Silas had a difficult time going to sleep. His grief was expressed as we attempted to go to bed. He wouldn’t sleep, stay in bed, or obey. I used my normal disciplinary methods, but none of them worked. Finally, in complete exhaustion, I began to spank. (See: Walking with My Son Through the Death of His Grandfather)

Spanking is something we have rarely used. It has worked well with Ella–just a threat creates a modification in her behavior. Yet with Silas, it didn’t work. He continued to disobey and my frustration grew.

The more my frustration grew, the more dogmatic I became that Silas needed to learn to stay in bed, and more importantly, to obey.

No one was happy.

Finally, I realized I was making things worse, not better. Silas did need to learn to stay in bed, but his need to grieve was better. (See: Recognize Your Child’s Pain) What was the difference in learning that lesson early in his 5th year compared to late in his 5th year? The only difference was that my life would be easier the faster he learned it.

Clearly he needed to obey, but he was grieving and afraid. What he needed most was a patient and gracious father.

So I devised a new strategy. No more spanking, much more patience, and a few tricks learned through trial and error (for example, when the lights were left on downstairs, Silas would get out of bed and run downstairs. By turning off the lights before putting Silas to bed, I eliminated the jail break because he was too afraid of the dark to leave me).

It’s now been 4 months since Silas’ grandfather has died and rare is the occasion in which he won’t go to bed easily or when he disobeys at night. I was trying to teach an important lesson but at the wrong time.

Discern What Is Needed…

No matter a child’s age, a parent should always consider the emotional state of everyone involved when trying to determine when a lesson should be taught. However, the older a child, the more freedom a parent has to delay a teaching moment.

Young children do not have the ability to see past the moment. For them, lessons must be tied to immediate action. But the more a child matures, the more freedom the parent has to wait until both parties are in a good emotional state to teach a lesson. (See: Shame On Me For Shaming Them)

Parents are called to teach; children need to learn. One of the greatest challenges of parenting is teaching when a child is most likely to understand rather than teaching simply because we are frustrated or angry.

2 Responses to When to Teach Your Kid a Lesson
  1. Dan Trantham Reply

    Good topic KT. And I enjoyed the part about changing your tactics with Silas and seeking to understand the motivations for his behaviors. And I really needed the comment about ensuring that they understand that our happiness is not based on their behavior. But I wanted to introduce an another perspective:

    My dad gave me a piece of advice about 20 years ago that I still find fascinating and useful. When I asked him why he blew up, and I mean explode, at myself and my four brothers when we screwed-up, why doesn’t he blow up at other people when they screw-up? It was my childish way of trying to corner him in a contradiction and thus prove I was cleverer than he. He said flatly, “I know exactly who I am. I know what values I hold dear, what principles I stand on, I know who God is and I will honor his authority, and I know what qualities are morally and ethically acceptable from me and the members of my household.” I was lost; I had no idea where he was going with the conversation.

    He said he didn’t want to pick fight with others, but would stand his ground if he must. Mostly he intended to understand a mistake and handle the problem in another way in a better setting. But when it came to his sons, he would intentionally and immediately escalate the tension. So basically, it was an act. He blew my mind when he said, if a leader hesitates on matters of foundational principles and acceptable norms, then it showed those characteristics were open for debate. He would blow-up at us immediately, and dramatically, to essentially stay “stop everything now; this isn’t even close to being right and I will teach you so while it is still fresh in your mind”

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Interesting tactic. I do think there are times in which this should be employed. I’m not convinced it is right in all areas.

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