Have you ever disciplined your child for the same offense over and over? You ask yourself, “Why is this child not getting it?” He has been disciplined for the same issue so many times he should understand by now, right? Well, if you rely on discipline as your only method of teaching, then no.
“Moral truth is best communicated in periods of non-conflict. That doesn’t mean we will not teach at times of correction, but it does mean a healthy dose of moral enlightenment should take place throughout the day and in moments of non-conflict, when the child is not in a position to have to defend his or her actions.” (p. 22, Growing Kids God’s Way, 5th edition)
As this quote says, our children learn best in times of non-conflict. If you only teach your child in the process of correcting him, he is less likely to learn the lesson. When he knows he has done something wrong, he wants to receive the correction and move on as quickly as possible. By contrast, when you sit down with your child at a time of non-conflict, he welcomes the conversation and is much more likely to receive and remember your lesson.
As parents, it is very easy to fall into the trap of expecting our children to understand the rules of life even if we’ve never taught them. But if we have never taken the time to teach our children what we expect of them, how can we expect them to comply? For example, we may simply expect that our children know what good table manners look like. We eat together at the table three times a day every day. We model good manners for them. But have we ever sat down and explained what “good manners” really means? Have we taught them the mechanics of where your fork goes when you’re not using it, to use a napkin rather than your shirt, to not blow bubbles in your milk, etc.? Then when they display poor manners, we discipline and expect them to get the message through the discipline alone. This is no way for a child to learn.
Teach the good, not just the bad
Certainly, correcting the child’s bad behaviors is important, but when we do this in the absence of teaching them what good behaviors look like, we leave a giant gap in their learning process. Too often, we focus on what our children should not do rather than what they should do. We phrase our teachings in the negative (“don’t do this”) rather than in the positive (“do this”).
“Negative moral training leaves a void that may cause serious moral compromise in the future. When a greater emphasis is placed on teaching children what not to do, and too little on what to do, the path to virtuous deeds is left highly undefined for the child. As a result, children understand what is not the right thing to do, but they never completely grasp what is the right thing to do.” (p. 22, Growing Kids God’s Way, 5th edition)
With this in mind and going back to our example of table manners, they may know not to wave their fork around in the air while they chew, but do they really know where they should put it? Does it go on the plate, on the placemat, or stay in their hand? Why? We have told them not to eat with their hands, but there are some times when we actually allow it. Do they really know which foods are finger foods and which are not? We can eat sandwiches and pizza with our hands but we must eat meat and pasta with a fork? If we haven’t taught them, they genuinely may not know.
Teach them often–all day every day
Teaching in times of non-conflict requires the parent to be on active alert for times to teach the child. As I see it, there are three times to teach: before, during and after the behavior occurs. Consider our previous example. The first and best time to teach is well before you sit down to eat. Find a time when your child is playing and pull out some dishes. Set them on the table as if you were going to eat. Then go through the motions of eating a meal, teaching your child through each and every step. Get creative with it. Pretend to put your hands in your “spaghetti”. Pretend to blow bubbles in your “milk”. Pretend to fling food around by waving your fork in the air. Pretend to fall off your chair. Make it funny. Your child will get a kick out of it and remember it for sure. Then go through the mechanics of proper manners. Fork goes on the plate while chewing. Napkin goes on the lap. Sit completely on the chair. Break it down for him step by step.
The second teaching time takes place when the opportunity for bad behavior might present itself. In our example, this would be when you sit down for a meal, but before the bad manners actually happen. Remind him of your practice time earlier in the day.
The third teaching time is after the child has exhibited the bad behavior. This is when you would correct the child. While teaching in times of non-conflict is best, you will still want to teach him after you have corrected him. Be sure to phrase your words in the positive, not the negative. You will want to say, “wipe your hands on your napkin,” rather than “don’t wipe your hands on your shirt”.
I’ll give you two real-world scenarios of teaching in times of non-conflict, both good and bad. First the bad. Not long ago, my husband and I took both boys out shopping for new winter coats. We made an evening of it, first eating dinner at the food court. A band was playing live music and there were kids dancing everywhere. The energy level was high. Then after dinner, we headed over to the store. I’m not sure that at any point we actually told them what we were planning to do. This was a big mistake, especially since we needed their cooperation to try on the coats. The entire process was a disaster. They resisted trying the coats on. It was hot inside the store and it was late. We lost William once or twice among the clothes. There were soccer balls flying everywhere. (Can anyone tell me why they sell soccer balls inside a clothing store?! And why are they always near the kids’ section and the cash registers?) We were correcting, threatening and pleading the entire time. And we were there much longer than we should have been. All four of us were completely exhausted by the time we left. But had we actually taken the time to tell the boys what we were planning to do (in a time of non-conflict before we got to the store or before we even left the house) and that we needed them to cooperate by trying on the coats, the process would have been much less painful.
Contrast that with a time when I sat down with William to teach him how to behave when we go to Starbucks. We go there regularly and it had gotten to the point where he was so comfortable there, his behaviors were getting out of hand. He was three at the time, and his biggest offense was not sitting still (on his bum) in the chair. So before we even left the house, I sat down with him at the table and showed him how I expected him to sit. Then I explained why we sit nicely (in consideration of others) and that if he couldn’t sit properly we would leave immediately. He was very excited to be having the conversation with me, gave me full eye contact, and seemed very receptive to my teaching. And it worked. He sat really well. Simple as that.
Now that I have practiced non-conflict training for a while, I do so several times a day. Even if William hasn’t exhibited poor behaviors in a particular situation in the past, I will still tell him what I expect. It usually just takes a minute or two and I make sure to call his name (requiring a “yes, mommy”) and get eye contact before I start talking. Some of the things I regularly teach are that his hand goes on the stroller when we cross the street, we share toys with our friends on a playdate, we pick up after ourselves when visiting friends, he must stay in the playground area at the park, he must stay on the sidewalk and not far from me when riding his bike, he must be on his best behavior at school, and more.
So take a few minutes to think through your child’s most troublesome behaviors. Be honest with yourself about whether you have really taken the time to teach him what you expect. Get in the habit of talking to him regularly. Stop and talk to him before you go anywhere in public. You might even want to write reminder notes throughout the house. Then be on the lookout for opportunities to teach him and teach him often. Teach through positive words, get creative and make it fun!