We’ve all been there. A child sasses, lies, whacks a sibling or shirks a responsibility, and we feel compelled to tell them what they did wrong and why it’s wrong. It’s good to tell kids what’s right and what’s wrong, but at times like this the message just won’t sink in. Kids call these “lectures.” Parents tend to believe that their lectures help their kids learn. Unfortunately, most kids report that they hear very little of what’s said in these lectures.
Remember how grown-ups talked in the old Charlie Brown cartoons? They didn’t need voices to represent what the adults said. They needed trumpets. Muted trumpets.
“Wah, wah, waaaah, wah!” The point was that anytime adults talked, it made no sense to kids.
When parents speak to their upset kids in the middle of the charged emotions of most discipline situations, they sound little different than those muted trumpets. When kids are upset, they simply can’t process adult logic. The lecturing may seem perfectly sensible to us, but unless parents effectively engage their kids, the kids’ brains just hear noise. To effectively teach right from wrong at times like these requires that the kids’ brains are engaged.
Here are two responses to catching one child mistreating another. The first is the lecture and demand way. (“Wah, wah wah, waaah!”) The second is an “ask questions that engage a child’s brain” way. Consider how each feels to a child:
“It’s not OK to hit your brother! This is the third time today – I don’t know why you keep picking on him!! You need to learn to be respectful or you’re gonna spend the evening in your room. Now say you’re sorry and don’t do it again. If this keeps up you’re going to lose your screen time for the week!”
The tricky part of this approach is that it may motivate a child not to repeat the behavior, not because the child wants to do the right thing, but because they don’t want more lectures, or they fear losing privileges. So it can feel to parents like it’s “working” when in fact it’s likely teaching kids to get craftier about misbehaving in ways they won’t get caught.
“Wow, you’re having a tough time here. Is it going the way you’d like?”
This question alone may lead to some calming, and readiness to go further. If not, offer a break and wait. Then, ask more questions. “What do you wish your brother had done differently? What do you wish you had done differently? What would you like to do to wisely solve this problem?”
The second approach, with its insightful, non-judgmental questions, communicates a powerful message: “You can understand and sort out your own problems.” The approach leads kids to feel supported by their parents and open to input. Kids who are guided this way instead of lectured tend to develop wisdom and maturity well ahead of their peers.
So next time you’re tempted to unpack your “lecture trumpet”, remember –
Questions tend to engage kids’ brains.
Lectures tend to shut kids’ brains down.
Questions tend to build wisdom.
Lectures tend to build resentment.
What is your best hope for your engagement with your kids when they struggle?
Apply It Now:
- Take a breath, and think through – What kind of messages do I want to communicate to my struggling child?
- Consider – What questions could help them make a non-defensive, thoughtful assessment of the situation?
- Ask a question that elicits a wise response. i.e. How would you want to solve this, in a way that you will feel good about it when you think back on it?
Want more practical tips? See below.
When Your Child Misbehaves – Four Strategies for Lasting Change
Frustrated by constant discipline challenges? Take 15 minutes to read our free ebook 4 Messages All Children Long to Hear: A Discipline That Connects Overview.