What I’m about to say is going to surprise you:
We don’t have to make everything a “teachable moment” in order for our kids to learn.
Imagine this scene: your child is playing a board game with their friends or their siblings.
They think one of the friends is cheating or maybe they’re just losing. Your child gets upset and flips the game over and runs to their room.
You might think “Oh boy, I’ve got to go in there and talk to them. I need to tell them what they did was wrong and why it was wrong!”
I totally understand where that impulse comes from-
When our child behaves badly we get scared. We think that we need to teach our child why they shouldn’t do whatever they just did.
We understandably all want our kids to behave well and be good people!
In the example I shared, we may feel the need to tell them it is bad manners to flip the game and that no one will want to play with them if they behave that way.
We might be tempted to say “What you did out there wasn’t okay. Losing is part of life and your friends aren’t going to want to play with you if you do that!”
Or we might have a nagging thought that they need a consequence so that they won’t do it again.
I get it. It’s so hard when our kids are acting out.
Instead, we have to stop and ask ourselves: “Is what I am about to say really necessary? Is there an information gap here? Does our six-year-old really think that it’s okay and acceptable to flip the game?”
Probably not! It’s unlikely that there is an information gap. Your child may have just been having a hard day or maybe they struggle with self-regulation.
Most of the time your child already knows that what they did was wrong. Lecturing is really more for our own benefit than their benefit.
When we feel anxious about our kids’ behavior, turning something into a “teachable moment” makes us feel like at least we’re doing something.
I bet at this point you’re wondering, “What’s wrong with this approach?”
First of all, if your child is crying and upset, it’s not the right time to try and teach them. Even if there’s some information you need to give them, they can’t actually learn anything when they are upset. Their ‘thinking brain’ is offline.
The other reason why we don’t want to point out everything that they did wrong and why it was wrong is because it causes shame.
Shame makes your child feel like they are unworthy and unlovable. We want our kids to know that even when they make mistakes or bad choices, they are still worthy and loveable. This is true self-worth. (And it’s something that a lot of us still struggle with today because we weren’t raised with peaceful parenting!)
Shame prevents any learning from happening. This is because when we feel shame as humans, we get really defensive.
Your child might respond to your attempt to lecture with “It wasn’t my fault! If they hadn’t cheated, then I wouldn’t have done that!”
If our child gets angry because they feel like we don’t understand their perspective or they don’t feel like we are on their side, it can shift them away from regret about their choices and into negative feelings towards us.
They are not going to be able to think about the situation in a different way if they feel shamed and defensive during that teachable moment.
Also, it simply doesn’t feel good when someone comes in and starts telling you everything you just did was wrong! Imagine you made a mistake at work and your boss came in and lectured you. You already felt bad and now you feel even WORSE. You knew you did something wrong already.
Here’s the thing–We have to remember that kids *do* have a strong internal moral compass, the same way that we do.
Just like us, kids don’t want to make mistakes. They want to do the right thing.
So what do you do when something bad happens? Your kid flips over that game and runs to their room? What do you do if you’re not going to make it a teachable moment?
First, forget about whatever your child just did.
Go to your child. Help them calm down and maybe even give them a hug. Then we might say, “Wow, that was tough. You were losing and that was a really bad feeling.”
Get curious and ask your child to tell you more about what happened.
Next, empathize. (Even if your child caused the situation!) (Yes, this will be hard! Stop, drop and breathe.)
Acknowledge your child’s point of view. Let them know that we understand what was happening. Often once a kid feels understood and empathized with they will naturally calm down and move into repair mode or problem solving mode on their own.
Hold space for them to reflect and repair. When kids are not made to feel defensive, if they don’t feel shamed, if they don’t feel like we think they are a horrible person, they will have space to reflect and think, “I should go back out and apologize to my friend or go back out and fix the game.”
This is what happens when we can really hold space for them and be on their side, instead of lecturing or using consequences. They want to do the right thing.
A note on empathy- It is important to remember that when we’re empathizing with their behavior and empathizing with their feelings that this doesn’t mean that we agree with them. In our pretend scenario we don’t have to agree that it was a great idea to flip the game over when you’re losing.
We want to let them know that we understand where that behavior came from and that we still think they’re a good person even though they made a mistake.
We talk a lot about empathic limits in peaceful parenting. Even when we have to correct someone, we do it in a way that lets them know that they are still a good person.
In most cases, we don’t need to make it a teachable moment. Even if there is an information gap that we DO need to address, we don’t have to talk about it right at that moment. Especially if our child is still upset or we’re still upset (maybe we’re horrified and embarrassed about what they did).
We can always talk about it later that day or while laying beside them before they fall asleep at night.
A couple of common traps to watch out for when we’re tempted to make something a teachable moment:
Getting into “Lecture Mode”. We want to make sure that we Stop, Drop and Breathe so that we stay calm when processing an upsetting event with our child. If we catastrophize about their behaviour, we will talk too much and our child will tune us out.
Better than lecturing is getting curious and asking questions about what happened and about what they think they could do next time.
Trying too hard to get the child to have empathy for the other people involved in the situation. We think that it will help them to not do it next time if we say “How would you feel if….was done to you?” Almost all the things we say that start with this phrase end up feeling shaming.
If we feel our child still doesn’t ‘get it,’ there are ways that we can help them understand the other person’s perspective without shaming them.
Instead, we can use very soft and gentle “I wonder” statements such as “I wonder if your friend felt kind of sad that the game got tipped over?”It is not only the choice of words, but the tone and intent that we bring to these types of questions that help our children to reflect without feeling shame.
Here’s what we really need to remember: After a challenging episode or difficult behavior we want to ask ourselves “Do we really need to make this a teachable moment? Is there a gap here in information? Does our child really not know that what they did was wrong?
Most of the time when we start doing a “teachable moment” it is because of our own fear.
We worry that our child’s undesirable behaviour is never going to change.
We have a need to make ourselves feel better by doing something when unwanted behavior happens.
We think that the only way to make our child learn is by making them feel bad.
Or we just start lecturing when we are dysregulated, because the behaviour triggered our own “fight” mode.
Our kids know when they have done something wrong. If it is truly an information gap, of course, we want to talk about it!
But most of the time they already know, and what they need is empathy from us.
Resist that teachable moment. They are mostly not necessary.
Instead, we want to help our kids with more support, connection, and all of our peaceful parenting tools and strategies that we use to try to get to the bottom of difficult behavior.
Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 15, 18, and 21). Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to, “We’ve got this!”
Read more at: www.sarahrosensweet.com