The Flip Side of Teachable Moments
In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I spend a lot of time encouraging parents to create teachable moments for your kids. Such moments are generally an “aha” moment for your child, you know, when they get it. It’s new information they acquire from you or from the circumstances, a life lesson, if you will.
There are three kinds of teachable moments. The most fun ones come when there is no problem. You are sharing a magic moment with your child and both of you are the better for it.
Jim and Jason are riding in the car and it begins to snow. Six year old Jason is fascinated by the snowflakes hitting the windshield. “Wow! There are like a million of them, Dad.”
Jim glances over to his transfixed son. “That’s right, son, and each is different from the others. Each is a unique creation from God.”
Jason cocks his head as he looks back at his dad. Dad continues, “That’s what snowflakes and humans have in common. Each is created individually. Each is unique. Each is from God.” Jason paused for just a moment, and then turned again to look at the snowflakes outside. A spontaneous teachable moment.
After getting back from the store, Jim gets Jason started on his homework. While getting supper ready, he hears Jason erupt, “Arrgh. This math is stupid,” and Jason swipes his book and math problem sheet off his desk.
Jim turns the heat down on the frying pan and finds Jason in his bedroom. “Homework kicking your butt?” He walks to his son’s side and puts a comforting arm around him.
“I can’t do it,” Jason screams, “and you can’t make me.” If his dad chooses power, he might be offended by Jason’s show of disrespect and lose a teachable moment. Instead, he chooses empathy and active listens Jason’s feelings.
“Wow! You’re really upset. It’s hard when you are learning something new and it doesn’t come to you naturally.” Jason noticeably calms down and slumps his shoulders. Dad continues, “I’ve got some ideas for you. Do you want to hear them?” Another teachable moment evolves from his calming his son down and getting back to task.
The third kind of teachable moment is rarely acknowledged. These occur not from circumstances and not from when your child has a problem. These occur when you have a problem with your child.
After Jason and his dad figure out his homework and he finishes it, his 4 year old sister comes into his room. “Get out, Emily. I don’t want you here in my room,” he shouts, and then pushes her down. Emily’s cries bring Jim running. Her dad scoops her up and stares down his son.
While comforting his daughter, Jim asks Jason, “Care to explain?”
“She was bothering me,” Jason countered. Jim paused to collect his thoughts and chose this to be another teachable moment for Jason.
“So, Emily was bothering you and you chose to shout at her and push her down.” Jim let Emily down and directed her to go play in her room and that he would be there shortly.
“Son, this isn’t like you. What else is going on?” Jason expected to be yelled at but puzzled instead. He began to explain his actions, while his dad active listened. When Jason was finished, dad asked, “Could there be other ways you could have handled your feelings better?”
Jason fell silent. Dad added, “Tell you what. Just climb on your bed for a while and lay there. No toys, no books, no electronics. I want you to think about other ways you could have handled your feelings and how you could have avoided hurting your sister. I’m going to tend to Emily and I’ll be back in a while to hear what you’ve come up with.”
While magic times and calming times are two sources of teachable moments with your child, confronting times is the flip side of teachable moments. All promote healthy relationship and creative problem-solving.
Sixteen year old Heather rushes into the kitchen one morning, harried and out of breath.
“Mama, can you please stop and iron my blouse. I want to wear this super cute outfit today, but I’m running out of time.”
Until recently, mom would have stopped fixing breakfast, taken the blouse from Heather, and then rushed to accommodate her frazzled daughter. Uh, why?
Several rationales come to mind. Let’s see. It’s what mothers do. I have to help her get out the door and get to school. I do a better job of ironing than she does. She’ll get upset at me if I don’t do it. Breakfast can be a little late today. I can make time…the list goes on.
Here’s the deal. None of these excuses have any merit. Being a nice and accommodating parent does not always translate into being a good parent. In fact, such accommodation can lead to Heather’s feeling entitled. That is, I can do what I want without consequences.
So, instead of “sure, honey. Let me get that for you,” mom sighs, takes a breath, and replies, “You know what, Heather? That’s not gonna work for me right now. I’m in the middle of putting breakfast on the table. How about you take the time yourself or maybe pick another outfit for today? Then you can iron what you need tonight for you to wear tomorrow without the rush.”
Wow! Can we do that as parents? In fact, yes. Actually, setting healthy boundaries for our children is an essential part of parenting. When you set boundaries, you convey self-respect, responsibility, value, and worth to your children. You also give them opportunity to take responsibility for themselves, accommodate, learn that actions have consequences, and plan ahead. Time crunches and crises are almost always self-induced.
Yes, you can say “no” and mean it. It’s freeing for you as a parent and it’s role modeling a critical quality of healthy relationships for your child. Setting healthy boundaries, active listening their upset and disappointment, and then helping your child adjust accordingly is a great teachable moment for all.
Okay, I admit it. I’m a Star Trek nut. Never had the series theme song as my ringtone, but I do like the lead-in…Space, the final frontier. For teens, having space and learning how to navigate it well, is their final frontier, on the boundary between adolescence and adulthood.
At 16, Alan was, well, Alan. He is tall, lanky, not particularly social nor athletic. He’s a computer gamer and he spends a lot of time in his bedroom watching YouTube videos and playing RPG’s with his friends. His role-playing friends are on-line. Each has the others back in the war games they play. Alan has only one friend in real life, his next door neighbor, Tommy, and they’ve known each other since they moved into the neighborhood when Tommy was 3 years old.
Alan is a B/C student, doing well in computer, math, and technology classes at school, not so well in English and history classes. His thumbs fly when he is texting, of course using the obligatory texting, emoji-laden short hand, but it is hard for him to turn in essay questions, book reports, or even stories that capture his imagination and gaming expertise. His teachers have tried everything to help motivate Alan to succeed in school.
So, the million dollar question. Is Alan’s story normal? Typical for his age group? As his parent, how do you check this out? How do you help him navigate to adulthood and successful, responsible, independent living?
Alan certainly wants his space, his own cocoon in his room. That, in and of itself is normal. Teens do these kinds of things on their journey of finding themselves. Establishing an individual identity is the developmental goal of adolescence. However, we all, also by nature, are social animals. Most folks have 1 or 2 best friends, with whom each is the other’s confidante, and a social network of 6 to 8 people, 2 or 4 couples as adults, with whom they frequently hang out.
To help the Alans of the world navigate adolescence to adulthood, several points come to mind. First, respect his need for space, but with some conditions. He must make an effort to emerge from his room for meals with the family, for school, and for other required appointments. Second, he must attend to responsibilities, such as homework, chores, errands and the like, before melting into his “space.”
Third, he must be willing to share his feelings with you at some level. Remember, kids don’t answer essay questions very well. So, when you get a shoulder shrug, look away, or silence in response, make your essay question a multiple choice question. You know your teen well enough to likely come up with a topic or area that’s troubling him. Use your active listening to help him flesh out his feelings and be available, on his request, to troubleshoot and advise.
Wanting space is not the teen problem. That’s normal. If they use that space to hole up, withdraw from social/family interaction, and push people away, then it’s a problem. With your kind assurance, healthy confrontation, and loving active listening, such problems can become teachable moments.
“But I want it,” little 3 yr. old Andy demanded, stomping his feet for emphasis. “Gimme right now.”
“That’s enough, young man,” huffed his mom, with hands on hips. “What part of ‘no’ didn’t you understand?”
Andy darted past his mom in the kitchen, sweeping loose objects off the kitchen table as he went. He screamed, running through the house, catching his breath only to declare loudly, “You’re so mean.”… “You’re not my mommy.”… “I don’t love you anymore.”
Andy’s behavior is unacceptable, and he is out of control. Mom pulled the power and authority card, but this time to no avail. Now what do you do?
Even in the most stable, best of homes and environments, tantrum behavior from some children is inevitable. Sometimes it is embarrassing, especially when thrown with company around or in a public place, like the supermarket. Always, it is challenging when you child is demonstrating out-of-control behavior. When your power and authority falls flat, shift your focus from your authority to his feelings. Active listening is the go-to tool whenever your child demonstrates an emotional fever. Tantrum behavior counts.
Sometimes, thankfully rarely, some children up the ante by demonstrating safety or property issues. If they are in danger of harming themselves, you, or others, and if they start randomly throwing and breaking things, you might use what’s called a nurturing/holding procedure, or NHP.
The NHP is a physical restraint of your child against his will, with your assurance that you will only control him until he can control himself. Get ready. Kids will resist and attempt to get loose or turn on you by biting, kicking, pinching, and the like.
Hold him from behind, with your legs wrapped around his and your arms covering his. Keep your head back, to avoid his head-butting you. As calmly and with soothing voice as possible, tell him, “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry you are having such a bad time. Right now, you can’t control yourself. Ya know what? I’m going to continue controlling you so that you don’t hurt yourself, me, others, or break things. I love you so much that I’m going to do this for you as long as I need to. As soon as you show me you’ve calmed down and regained your control, I’ll let you go.
When your child realizes he can’t get loose, and you mean what you say, he will calm himself down. As you see measures of this, acknowledge them with assurances. Often, when this norm is established, all parents need to do subsequently is ask, “Now, Andy, do I need to hold you tight again?” Their memory kicks in and they calm down. After calming himself down, even a tantrum can become a teachable moment.
Crash! Mom heard to sound coming from her 13 year old daughter’s room. “Now what,” she muttered as she dried her hands before leaving the dishes to make yet another kid rescue.
“Chad, look what you’ve done,” Jenny screamed at her 10 year old little brother. “Get out of my room, you jerk!” Mom hurried her pace, sensing her children coming to blows.
Sibling rivalry is only one of many daily challenges for parents of strong-willed children. It would be common for mom to storm into Jenny’s room and begin barking orders. “Jenny, don’t talk to your brother like that.” “Chad, pick up that mess. What are you doing in your sister’s room anyway?”
Unfortunately, such common occurrences will likely lead to hurt feelings, emotional distance, and continued power struggles. When you are able to trade in divisive “me against you” talk for “we and us” talk, you are on the right track.
First, without comment or criticism, separate your children in the moment. Take time to find out what happened, from each of their perspectives, using your active listening to understand the feelings behind the actions.
Second, when you sense your child’s emotional fever is going down after active listening, ask what they might have said or done differently to have achieved positive outcome.
Third, identify what each child did to add to the difficulty between them, and give each a time-out to formulate an apology to the other. Behaviorally and developmentally, the rule of thumb is to give times-out that are no longer than 2 minutes for every year of your child’s age. For Chad, at age 10, that would be 20 minutes. For Jenny, at age 13, that would be 26 minutes. In reality, such a brief time-out may serve its purpose, but also is an opportunity for you to step away, settle down, and bring reason to the conversation.
Finally, after these times-out, talk to your children together both to structure the apology/forgiveness piece and to jointly address specifics that could help avoid such encounters in the future. For example, Chad could knock before entering his sister’s room, and Jenny could make some time for her brother doing something he likes, like competing on a video game.
I don’t know any parent who can avoid those moments where they say “Uh oh. Here we go again.” However, taking these steps will turn those uh oh moments into teachable moments for your children.
My daughter was 4 years old a long time ago. I was talking to my neighbor over the fence in our yard. Rachel came up to me, tugged on my pant leg, and announced, “I need some attention.” Whoa! I stopped my conversation with my neighbor and gave Rachel the attention she asked for.
Now, wouldn’t it be nice if our children asked for our attention in that manner all of the time. Alas, not so.
Molly was on her cell phone with the mother of one of 9 yr. old Alexa’s friends. They were just gossiping. Alexa guessed who her mom was talking to and decided that she wanted to talk to her friend as well. She proceeded to paw at her mom, dramatically her to give her the cell phone so she could say “hi.” Molly got mad.
She asked her neighbor to hold on a sec and turned to her daughter. “If you don’t stop bugging me while I’m on the phone, I will pop you so hard you won’t be able to sit for a week,” she threatened, wagging her finger in Alexa’s face. Alexa stopped, turned dejectedly and shuffled away, whimpering about how mama just doesn’t understand.
In Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I note that the concept of attention has an absolute quality about it. That is, either positive attention or negative attention will fill the bill. Sadly, positive attention seems to be much harder, longer getting, and less frequent than negative attention. So, kids naturally find negative ways to fill their attentional needs.
Another visual image I share with readers in chapter four, Children Never Mean What They Say, is this. Imagine that children have 100 parts to them. Whatever type of attention they seek, it will always add up to 100. So, if a child has 12 parts positive attention, by definition she has 88 parts negative attention.
Now, here’s where you come in as the parent. Whatever part you pay attention to grows. So, if you talk to your daughter about the good choices she is making, the positive parts grow from 12 to 14. By definition, her negative parts shrink from 88 to 86. Conversely, your yelling, discounting, ignoring causes the negative to grow and the positive to shrink.
Mom and dad, pay attention. Focus on what your child is doing and saying right while ignoring as much as possible what they are saying and doing wrong. Where correction is called for, talk to your child after all has settled down with a prompting comment such as, “Golly, sweetheart, that wasn’t like you. What else is going on? How do you think this might have turned out better? Such questions get your child’s brain moving back in a positive direction. Paying attention to these details will lead to many teachable moments.
No surprise here. We live in the age of cyber-kids. Our kids have, or have access to, all kinds of electronic devices. Sometimes I ask my 6 year old granddaughter to help me out on my computer. You know what? She does. Not sure if that says more about her or me.
Also, no surprise that advanced technology is a two-edged sword. It can greatly benefit our lives and our parenting. It also can be a distraction that erodes family relationships over time. When my wife and I go out to eat, often I casually check iPhone use among families in the restaurant. I have seen a family of 5 people all separately on their phones, either texting or gaming, while waiting for their order to arrive. Wow!
One morning years ago, my then 2 year old granddaughter had awakened. She played in her crib for almost 45 minutes before looking up into the corner of her bedroom ceiling, at the camera, and declared, “Ok, mommy. I’m ready to get up now.” The age of cyber-kids.
Technology is a must for today’s school kids. Many teachers use the internet to supplement their lessons. This is one of the blessings of cyber-technology. However, folks are also considering computer gaming addiction as a real thing now. When technology has control over you, rather than you having control over it, there is something wrong.
Cell phones and other technologies have been known to contribute to sleep loss, cyber-bullying, lower school grades, obesity, and lack of exercise. What’s a parent to do?
First, take charge of home technology. Use the available computer and smart phone controls to determine where your kids can go in cyber-space and where they cannot go. Second, use timing apps to determine when your kids can turn their devices on and when they will go off, even if your child is smack in the middle of gaming. Third, declare electronics-free zones, especially around family meal time and bedtime. In fact, create a storage bin for all portable electronics, where devices are left before lights out each night. They can be picked back up in the morning.
These kinds of changes will be met with outrage by your children, if you haven’t implemented them from the get-go. Use a family meeting to address your concerns. Active listen your children’s outrage. Set a length of time as a trial period, after which the new rules will be reviewed. However, if these changes have positive benefit, such as more rest, less fighting, more fun times, more relationship-building, then stick to your guns. Rules over technology use will benefit your children in the long run.
A coin has two sides, heads and tails. Neither is better than the other. They are just different. However, the coin could not be without both sides. The sides make the coin. Such is a parent’s love for their child.
“My little Joey is such a angel…when he is sleeping.” Amanda sipped her coffee before continuing with her friend, Rose. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my little boy so much, but, whew, is he a handful sometimes.” Rose commiserated with her friend.
“Sometimes I just have to jerk a knot in him, you know, give him consequences for his bad choices. I feel so guilty after he gives me those soulful, puppy dog eyes when I put him in the corner.”
Rose chimed in, “Amanda, don’t beat yourself up. You’re a great mom. You listen to Joey when he’s upset and trying to get out of his punishment. But you also help him realize that he has made a bad choice and that there are consequences for his actions.”
“I know,” Amanda sighed, “but still…”
These moms love their children. They know that the parenting coin has two sides, both empathy and confrontation. With empathy, you teach your child that they have a right to their feelings, and you empower them to make good choices. With confrontation, you teach them that there are consequences to their choices that have impact both on them and on those around them. Both empathy and confrontation are required from us parents to prepare our children for their adult world.
Many children today seem to suffer from false empowerment. That is, they have a sense of entitlement with feeling of impunity. I can do what I want, with no consequences. Parents of these children tend to be permissive, wanting their children to have full and enriching experiences, with few or no limits to their actions. Such permissive parenting can lead to selfishness, lack of empathy, insecurity, and potential bullying.
In Chapter 3 of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I offer that children will always test the limits. However, they do so to be sure that the limits are there. Being in charge is every child’s worst nightmare, leading to fear and anxiety.
For you, the parent, to be in charge, you need to flip a coin. Both empathy and confrontation, the two sides of your parenting coin, need to be used to help your child find their place in the world.
Every good parent feeds their children regularly, 3 meals a day if possible. Sometimes meals consist of a sandwich or two. Meals help our children grow physically. A sandwiched comment can help our children grow in character emotionally and spiritually.
Alec is 6 years old. He gets frustrated reading out loud. When left to his own devices, he takes hints from the pictures and guesses the content of passages. His daddy is trying to help him read at bedtime.
“Okay, son. You read the first paragraph and I’ll read the next,” daddy coaxes his reluctant son, making the task a joint effort.
“You read it all to me, daddy. I don’t feel like it tonight.”
“Aw, son, you know your teacher told us to help you keep up with your reading. I understand how hard it is for you at times, but maybe we can struggle through it together. Okay? Let’s give it a try.”
Adam turned his back to his dad and grumbled to himself. Dad saw the emotional fever mounting and tried active listening. “It’s tough trying hard things, huh. You’re frustrated.”
Adam turned back to his daddy. “What do you do when you’re frustrated, daddy?” His dad told him a relevant story that happened at his work this past week and concluded, “Well, even though it was tough, I tried. I didn’t do it perfectly, but trying and getting more of it right helped me want to try more.” His dad then tickled his son and encouraged him to try reading. After struggling through the storybook, dad noted, “Look at you. You tried even though you didn’t want to. You missed a few words, but you used your phonics rules to sound them out. Let’s keep trying every night until you get it, okay son? I’m so proud of you.”
What dad used is what’s called “The Sandwich Effect.” When helping your child with hard things, or with making needed changes, start with a praise statement. Follow that with a critique. Conclude with another praise statement. This learning sandwich goes down much better for children. The credit you give them helps reinforce the learning. When looking for change, give your child a sandwich.
We’ve all been through the “Hormone Wars,” both our own and our children’s. Some of us have been through the wars more than once. It’s true that hormones will wreak havoc with our bodies, our families, and our relationships. Because these wars are a given, it’s important to identify, own, and plan for them.
Mandy is 13. She’s been having menstrual periods regularly for a couple of months now and she is perpetually annoyed by them. Her mom had prepared her, but going through it and talking about it seem to be two different things.
“Mama, this is gross. Yuck. Can I just do something to stop my period?” Mandy pleaded with disgust. “Aw, baby, I know it’s unpleasant, but you know, it’s just part of being an adult woman.” Mandy protested, “But I’m only 13. It’s not fair. I don’t like it.”
Her mama had given her the Biblical reasoning for women’s periods, the Adam & Eve story. She had also given her the medical reasons. They hadn’t, however, really talked about the mood and attitude changes with having her period. Now was the time for that talk.
Mandy’s mom agreed to be aware of the time of the month for her daughter. She would give her discreet prompts and encourage preparations. Medical research concludes that the emotional impact of menstruation can be improved when teens and women increase their physical activity and use a hypoglycemic diet, which is low sugar/low caffeine intake the week before menstrual flow begins. Mom suggested her daughter jog, walk the dog daily, or get into sport or workout as regular health conditioning. She also agreed to have healthy low sugar/low caffeine snacks and meals for that preceding week.
For issues of mood and attitude, mom offered to cut her daughter some slack, as long as Mandy did not cross the disrespect line and corrected her slip-ups. As with all emotional fevers, active listening is your go-to response when your child has mood or attitude issues. Mandy did not like the bottom line. It is what it is. She did, however, appreciate her mom’s efforts to understand and to adjust.