Gracie had a dilemma. She was really good at baseball, but, at 8 years old, her options to play were limited. She could play softball with the girls, but she wanted to play baseball with the boys. She wanted the challenge, but…
“What if they tease me because I’m a girl? What if I’m not good enough to make the team? What if I goof up and can’t do it right?” Gracie was so worried about all this stuff that her tummy was in knots.
“Wow!” her daddy exclaimed, “That’s a lot of ‘what ifs’” he took a breath and thought for a moment. “You know, we won’t be able to answer all of these questions until next year if you pass on the tryouts today. I would hate for you to spend all that time without knowing.”
Gracie’s dad chose a teachable moment for his daughter. He could have simply said, “Enough! I paid good money to register you for these tryouts and you’re going.” Yeah, that would have worked. I can just imagine the knots getting bigger in Gracie’s tummy.
Instead, her dad active listened his daughter’s feelings, to help her calm down. When he saw that Gracie’s emotional fever had gone down, he said, “I have some thoughts about how we can handle this situation. Do you want to hear them?” When a parent asks a child for permission to speak, most children are awestruck and gladly agree. In Gracie’s case, she and her dad practiced baseball in the back yard before going to the tryout. Her dad praised her efforts and outcome. He pumped her up for the opportunity to “show her stuff.” Her confidence grew and she took on the challenge.
Generally, when stressed or worried, it’s helpful to start taking slow, deep breaths to help you stay in the moment. When the “what ifs” invade your thinking, convert each one to an “I wonder” statement, followed by a probable positive outcome. Generally, “what if” creates anxiety and worry, while “I wonder” creates curiosity and resolve.
So, in Gracie’s case, “what if I strike out?” becomes, “I wonder how well I will hit the ball.” The embedded positive outcome is, I will hit the ball well. Finally, imagine the outcome you want to happen, in all of its rich and full detail. Write it down or share it with a confidante to make it more real. This picture becomes your reference point as you pursue your goal.
While “what if” equals worry and problems, “I wonder” creates a pathway to helpful activity and success. Helping your child through a difficult situation with active listening and creative, joint problem-solving is the pathway to teachable moments.
Setting healthy boundaries and encouraging good choices help children feel more secure, less anxious, and relieved to not be in charge. In Chapter Three of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I affirm that children will test the limits. This is a developmental imperative. Why do they do this? To be sure that the limits are there.
Lauren sat down with her daughter, Grace, to have breakfast. She fixed herself a bowl of fruit and some eggs for her daughter. As they were chatting about their coming days, Grace pushed her eggs back toward her mom, wrinkled her nose, and concluded, “Yuck. I don’t like these eggs. They’re squishy inside. Can I have cereal instead?”
Her mom dutifully put her eggs in the sink and then got Grace a bowl of cereal. She pushed the cereal around as she talked about the kids at school. “Come on, Gracie,” mom urged, “Your time is running short now. Eat.”
Grace looked at her cereal, and then at her mom’s fruit bowl. “Nah. I think I want your fruit bowl.” She switched her bowl with her mom’s and began devouring the fruit. Lauren rolled her eyes, sighed, and thought, and to think that I went to all that schooling just to do shift work and become a short order cook.
Not much limit-setting here for Lauren, and Grace took advantage of it. Now, mom may be thinking, at least I found what she wanted to eat and she’s having a good breakfast before a long school day. However, the longer goal is also important. Mom needs to work on setting healthy boundaries for Grace and helping her make good choices. If mom is feeling taken advantage of or ignored, then she needs a sit-down with her daughter.
Set a time with relatively few distractions, where you can talk with your daughter. Perhaps after homework and before bedtime. Review the scenario in question and share your feelings with her. Encourage her to help you think of solutions to the problem of Gracie getting a nutritious breakfast without mom feeling taken advantage of.
After discussion, mom and Gracie settled on their going shopping for groceries weekly, or Gracie adding to the shopping list the kinds of breakfasts she would like. Then, each night before bedtime, mom and Grace decide on the next day’s breakfast items. Each goes to bed looking forward to the morning, rather than dreading the back and forth hassle.
Here, the boundary has been set for a good morning routine. The limit is defined as, “no takebacks.” That is, mom serves what Gracie decides the night before and finishes her breakfast before heading out to school. Mom gives Gracie a week of the new routine before reviewing to see how it is working. They could add some rewards and consequences, depending on how Gracie respects the boundaries and accepts the limits.
Most children will start such a discussion with, “No fair. You’re being so mean.” Active listen her feelings, but stay the course. With the limits firm, and boundaries secure, children with go with the flow and feel more secure, less anxious, and involved in a mutual problem-solving relationship and teachable moments with their parents.
You know what? Stuff happens, and not all of it is good stuff. But, no matter what the stuff is, changing it from bad to good always takes a certain path. Understanding the path and taking specific steps along it to reach your goal is the way to change habits from bad to good.
Chad is a sullen, moody, withdrawn 16 year old. He keeps his grades okay in school, but he doesn’t have a lot of friends that his folks know of. He mostly gets his own meals and eats in his room. When his folks invite him for dinner, he gives a curt reply, “Leave me alone.” His two younger siblings have just written him off, figuring he’s just being Chad. His folks mostly abide by his wishes and leave him alone.
One evening the police knock on their door asking to talk to Chad. He and his folks go into the living room, where the officers inquire of Chad’s whereabouts last Friday night. After getting lame excuses, the officers show Chad and his folks video footage of a shoplifting event that night at the mall. The offender is clearly Chad.
As a first offender and a juvenile, Chad is processed, tried, given a suspended sentence with first offender status after restitution. After a year of good behavior and substantive change, Chad’s conviction is expunged, just in time for him to go off to college. How did Chad make it from this bad choice and circumstance to a good outcome? The path on this journey has 4 steps.
First, all change begins from a position of unconscious ignorance. That is, you don’t know that your behavior is problematic, and you don’t know that you don’t know. Life just goes along.
Second, there is a precipitating event that creates drama and trauma. Your world is shaken. For Chad, his proverbial “oh crap” moment came when he was arrested for shoplifting. This moves you from unconscious ignorance to conscious ignorance. That is, you know that there is a problem, but you don’t know how to get past it. This second step is where you start to want to change your behavior. During this step, you find resources, a positive network, and you make effort to change.
Knowing the problem and wanting to change moves you from conscious ignorance to conscious awareness, the third step on your healing journey. People take a lot of time to embrace the change process because change is hard. As humans, we are drawn to the familiar, even if the familiar is unhealthy. It takes time to go from the familiar unhealthy to the unfamiliar healthy and then stay there long enough for healthy to become familiar.
Chad’s folks were a big part of his healing process because they saw the shoplifting as a symptom, not as a problem. They used active listening, comforting, and guidance to help Chad come to their perspective. They did not judge, criticize, or put him down. They even helped Chad find a therapist and joined him in the therapy process, loving him through all of his ups and downs.
By the time Chad went back to court a year later, with an excellent report from his probation officer, his parents, and his therapist, he had moved on to the final step in the change process. His conscious awareness had become an unconscious awareness. That is, his changes had become new habits that felt familiar to him and which he embraced. He wanted to spend time with his family. They routinely ate together. His grades went up and he found new friends who were kindred spirit. He was more open with his feelings and more responsible with his behavior. He didn’t have to think about being good any more, he just was good.
These four steps on the healing journey are universal. Active listening, emotional intimacy, and relationship are the means you can provide when someone you love needs to trade in bad habits for good.
There’s an old adage that says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Add to this adage the benefit of practicing a new skill consistently over time, and you get effective active listening.
Mary had just read my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting. She even convinced her husband, Andy, to take the parenting class with her where this was the resource book. Eight year old Amy, their oldest daughter, was their “test subject” in practicing the parenting tool of active listening.
“Mommy, I don’t get this times table stuff. Can you help me?” she asked one night while doing her homework. Mary put up her book and went to Amy’s bedroom.
“What don’t you get, dear?” she asked. “Everything. Math is dumb,” Amy threw her homework down and sprawled across her bed, covering her head under her pillow.
Mary sat on Amy’s bed beside her distraught daughter and concluded, “Well, that’s not going to get your homework done. Let’s try again.”
Amy groused, “Leave me alone,” as she recovered her head with her pillow.
Mary sighed and paused. She reached over to gently rub Amy’s back and spoke softly, “Well, sweetheart, I guess I just blew that, huh?” Amy uncovered her head from the pillow and turned on her elbow, looking puzzled at her mom’s comment.
Mary cradled her daughter’s cheek with her palm. “You know, darling, your dad and I are taking this class to help us try to better be there for you guys.” She paused and continued, “I think I just blew a chance to active listen your feelings. Can I try again?”
Amy nodded and folded herself into her mom’s arms. Mary thought for a moment and said, “You’re really frustrated that the times table is hard to understand, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, and it’s not fair,” Amy pouted.
“You’re not sure how to go about trying to get it right?”
“No, it’s too hard.”
“Okay, I have some thoughts that might help you get it right. Do you want to hear them?”
Amy eagerly agreed and the two of them tackled the homework together, with Mary guiding her daughter’s efforts.
My dad used to always tell me, if at first you don’t succeed, try, and try again. Good counsel, especially for your efforts to active listen your children. Kids are very forgiving if you are sincere with your efforts, and if you include them in the process.
After Amy successfully finished her times table homework with mom’s guidance, Mary asked, “So, how did I do with active listening your feelings? You know, my bossing you around just pulled you further away from me. When I active listened, was it more helpful to you?”
It’s okay doing this debriefing after a conversation with your child. Their feedback will help you in your skill-building. If it doesn’t go well the first time, back up, take a breath, and try again. You are learning something new, so practice, and give it time. In doing so, you are providing a teachable moment for both you and your child.
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.
Seven year old Julie doesn’t run as fast as her best friend, Ava. She never wins a race, even though she tries really hard. Because she’s a bit pudgy, she is always picked last during recess when they choose up for kickball. Mom mentioned the weight concerns when she last took Julie for her annual checkup. The physician seemed to not make a big deal out of the extra weight, indicating that the scales show Julie to still be within the average range for her age. So, is there a problem here?
Well, yes. If Julie is self-conscious about her weight and sees herself as losing out on stuff because of it, then that makes it a problem. As the parent, your go-to response is to active listen Julie’s feelings and concerns. It will be hard not to dismiss or diminish Julie’s feelings, because the physician did not have concern and she still is in the average range of weight.
Really, really try to avoid judging, criticizing, and giving solutions. These are the three cautions to active listening. Most parents see it as their right and that their children actually want to be criticized, judged, and given solutions. This is what I call exercising your power at the expense of your relationship with your child.
In our country, childhood obesity is a national epidemic. Obesity is clinically defined as carrying a weight which is at least 20% over the average range for your age and bone structure. Being “pudgy” is not necessarily being obese. Had Julie been obese, her pediatrician would have noted that. Throughout the total population of the US, 35% are overweight.
After active listening Julie and noticing her emotional fever coming down, switch to problem-solving with her, giving her the lead.
“Okay, sweetheart, I can see how really upset you are about your weight. Now that you are calmer, do you want to look at ways we can work together to help you lose that pudginess?”
With Julie’s permission, begin listing options on a paper. Healthy-only snacks, family exercise time, affirmation post-it’s like, “I’m doing great!” “No more pudgy.” “Being me is okay.” Help her make her plan, and get her permission to help her stick to it. Weigh her after wakening and before breakfast every morning and have her chart her weight daily. Praise and brag on her with every pound she loses, no matter how long it takes.
Now, with all this being said, keep in mind that Julie is still developing. Children tend to grow out before they grow up. Extra weight often precedes a growth spurt. So, help her be patient and not be so hard on herself. The human body is not fully formed for most people until they hit 18-25 years old.
Is your child a little pudgy? Address her feelings before helping her tackle her weight concerns and you will find yourself in a teachable moment.
Many years ago, my 8 year old daughter was acting out and I sent her to her room. I don’t remember the details. Sometime later I was doing laundry in the basement. I had not processed Rachel’s time-out with her and she had not been let out of her room. Nonetheless, she made her way down to where I was doing laundry. Silently, she floated a paper airplane from the doorway to me, and then ran quickly back upstairs. There were markings on the plane, so I unfolded it. Rachel had written, “I hate you.”
Wow! I was crestfallen, heartbroken, and stunned. I finished my load of laundry, giving me time to think about how to handle this. I went upstairs to her room. She was pretending to be asleep on her bed. I went to her side, placed the airplane on the bed and said, “You dropped this.” I started to leave her room, but Rachel bounded out of her bed, sobbing, and ran to hug me.
“Daddy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I was mad. Please forgive me.”
I folded her into my arms for a big hug and walked her back to her bed. We talked and worked it all out.
Looking back, apparently, I had sent my little girl to her room without adequate active listening and context. She felt unheard and schemed to float her feelings to me on the paper airplane to get my attention. It worked!
As we talked afterwards in her room, she recounted her perspective. I said, “I understand your anger, but what else were you feeling?”
Anger is funny like that. About 98% of the time, anger is secondary to a more primary feeling. Because anger is the most socially accepted negative feeling we have, we use it to cover unheard, frustrated, embarrassed, guilty, worried, and a host of other feelings. Only about 2% of the time is anger the primary feeling. Another way to tag it would be “righteous indignation.” We’re mad because something is just not right. Think a young mother yelling at her toddler in the grocery story because he’s grabbing at things. Think any instance of child neglect, abuse, abandonment. Mostly, righteous indignation occurs when there is a power differential and the victim is helpless.
So, I active listened, validating Rachel’s anger, but asking also, “what else are you feeling?” During the course of our talk, I saw her emotional fever going down. She then could accept my parenting perspective in correcting her behavior, and I helped her talk about ways she could avoid future such difficulties.
For a relationship-building teachable moment with your child, acknowledge her anger, but then find the primary feelings behind the anger by asking, “What else is going on?”
Robert came crashing through the kitchen door and ran through to the family room, where his mom was watching TV while folding laundry.
“Mama, can I go with Adam to the skateboard park? A bunch of us are meeting up there.”
Jodie stopped her folding, paused, and said, “Nope.”
“What? Why not? We won’t be gone long. Adam’s mom can take us. Pleeease,” he begged.
“Robert, I don’t like Adam, and his mom has a sketchy past before she was married. Find someone else to play with.”
“Aww, man, you never let me do anything,” Robert groused before turning on his heel and slamming the door as he stomped outside.
Good parenting is about making good choices. Jodie’s choice was hers to make, but was it a good one? an informed one? Likely not. Had she met Adam? Had she talked to his mom recently? Robert was basically a good kid, good grades, no outstanding warrants (lol). So why did she shut his request down?
Obviously, Jodie was trying to protect her son from possible harm, but at what cost? She’ll likely get the silent treatment from her son for a while. Jodie chose power over relationship with Robert, at least this time.
Kids often try to unconsciously manipulate their parents by coming up with urgent requests at the last moment. Jodie’s first bad choice was responding directly to her son’s request at all. She would have promoted a teachable moment and gotten more information on which to respond by saying something like, “Hold on, son. Take a breath. Give me some details so I can make a good decision.”
She then could have guided Adam through rational decision-making, where he might change his behavior or at least be more informed about the request he was making. Jodie’s not liking Adam at all is really not a part of the equation. Friendships are a human right, not a parental right. Choosing your child’s friends can lead to emotional distance from your child and subterfuge, where he ends up going behind your back. Helping your child make wise decisions, and then being there to catch him if/when he falls, is effective parenting.
My daughter had such a friendship dilemma when she was a teen. After our talking through her needs and feelings about this girl, I told her that she could have a positive influence over her friend, but, the friend could have a negative influence over her. Rachel tested the waters, but the friendship was short-lived.
Can you choose your child’s friends? No, not without risk you your relationship with your child. You can influence his choices by active listening and giving him wise counsel. The end result is a teachable moment from which you both benefit.
When my daughter was a preschooler, she did something mean to her brother, I don’t remember what. Anyway, I sent her to her room as a consequence. She stomped off, got to her bedroom doorway and turned on her heels. She folded her arms and stated emphatically, “You’re the one who is mean. I don’t love you anymore.” She then slammed her bedroom door as I started to come toward her.
Her actions presented me with a crossroads in our relationship. I could show her who’s the boss in my house. I could give her empathy. I could active listen. How I responded set the tone for the emotional intimacy of our father/daughter relationship.
If I wanted to make sure she knew I was the boss of her, I would say such things as, “Get rid of the attitude, young lady.” “Keep it up and you’ll be grounded twice as long.” “How dare you talk to me that way! Come here, and I’ll give you something to cry about.”
Such shaming, power plays, and threats secure my status as the boss, but at the risk of any meaningful relationship with my daughter. The result is her fearing me, shutting me out, and learning that feelings are bad to have.
If I wanted to give her empathy, I could have opened her slammed door and stood in the doorway, pausing to gather my thoughts. I might say, “Being punished is not fun, huh?” “Boy, you sure told me.” “I see. When you feel hurt, you want to hurt back.”
Empathy is a step in the right direction. It’s about trying to live in the other’s shoes for a moment, trying to understand where they are coming from. However, empathy is more about linking feelings and behavior, conveying “I get what you are thinking and feeling.”
Active listening, however, is the gold standard of emotionally intimate relationships. When I active listen, I am choosing relationship over power. My goal is helping my daughter lower her emotional fever, recognizing that her harsh words are only symptoms, not the problem. I could say such things as, “Wow, you’re really upset right now.” “You think I’m being unfair?” Empathy and active listening are cousins in the effective communication world, but empathy is likely to be more passive. Active listening is more engaging and, well, active.
As parents, we want our children to feel better, but sometimes it’s best to just let them sit with their feelings, explore them, have them in the moment. This is where mindful parenting and active listening intersect. When their emotional fever is high and there is a problem, be careful not to judge, criticize, or solve their problem for them. Just be with them, which is empathy, and help them understand their feelings, which is active listening.
We all breathe, just to stay alive. Few of us know how we breathe. Fewer still have had the panicky feeling of not being able to catch your breath. In healthy families, active listening is like a needed breath of fresh air in your relationship with your child. Be there for your kids.
Remember that old adage that says it’s easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission? Well, in your quest for effective parenting, throw that adage out the window. Forgiveness promotes power, while permission promotes relationship. Forgiveness smoothes over problems, while permission avoids them. In such a situation as a healthy, effective parent, choose permission.
Jim was walking passed his daughter Emily’s door to her bedroom and saw her light on. “Hey, sweetheart, up kinda late, aren’t you. The 18 year old nodded and stretched at her desk. “Just working on my personal statement for college applications. It’s kicking my butt,” she grumbled.
“Hard to figure out what to say and how to say it, so that you get your best bang for the buck, huh?” Jim commented, using his best active listening skills. “I can look at what you’ve got so far and give you feedback, if you’d like. What do you think?”
Emily glanced back at her computer screen and sighed, “Yeah, sure, why not?” Jim left his perch in her doorway and came over to her desk to look over her shoulder at her draft.
Jim could have come into his daughter’s room, after all, it is in his house, blustered some comment about her needing to get to bed, and sat down at her computer to critique and finish her draft personal statement. He has every right to do this, as her parent, but at what cost to Emily and to their relationship? She might have protested. Dad might have apologized, seeking her forgiveness, but the damage would have already been done.
Even if Jim had crafted the world’s best personal statement for his daughter, it would have been his words, not hers, and a teachable moment would have been lost.
Instead, Jim used his active listening to help lower the emotional fever his daughter conveyed by her words about the task kicking her butt. When he felt she was calmer, and in a better place to make good decisions, he asked permission to help her. This request became a context for a boost to their relationship and a collaborative effort, with Emily taking the lead and dad helping out.
After helping Emily out of her funk, he has more confidence that she will benefit from his wise counsel, the heart of a teachable moment. Even though this example is with a teen, the skill of asking permission of your child to help or direct them is universal. How many 4 year olds hear a grown-up give them the respect of asking their permission? How cool is that? Improved emotional intimacy, relationship and bonding are the result. This is the value of asking permission.