When he was twelve, a son of mine told me one day, “My English teacher is hard to please.”
I looked at him, waiting for more. “I wrote an essay that’s one-and-a-half pages. She only marked the first page.”
“Did you ask her about the half-page she didn’t mark?”
“She said it was horrible.”
I couldn’t stop myself from saying what was on my mind. “It would have been helpful if she told you what exactly she meant, don’t you think?”
Children, teens included, discover a myriad of things as they grow up. But it is us, the adults in their lives, who wield the power to make these discoveries healthy or unhealthy, pleasant or otherwise. In the example above, my son has discovered, to his chagrin, that being an adult and being helpful to a child is not necessarily positively correlated. Whether this is a healthy discovery or not, I shall leave it to your interpretation.
It’s hard for children to decipher vague words like “horrible”, “careless” and “lazy”. They can’t read your mind. Before you hope for a child to do better, the onus is on you to make sure they understand precisely what it is that you are unhappy about.
Suppose you are not too happy with the results of a test or the way your child has done an assignment. Before you blurt out anything, stop and ask yourself: What do I exactly need to say? How can I help this child understand what needs to be improved? For the subject of English, for instance, the word “horrible” can be interpreted as poor sentence structure, untidy work, or lack of content, among others.
Example: If it’s untidy work, ask her: “Anne, some of the letters run into the next word. What can you do about this?”
Example: If it lacks content, ask him: “Sam, there are two good points and a third one would round it up nicely. How can we do that?”
Children feel good when you ask them to help you because that way, they feel the ball is in their court and they are in control, not you. A healthy discovery. They will work harder. It will make your world easier, happier. And theirs, too.
Most kids do want to improve. Most kids do want to be responsible for themselves. Vague words force them to guess what went wrong and make assumptions which may be fuzzy and way off the mark. I personally know of a boy who thought that “untidy” meant big handwriting so he ended up writing smaller and smaller until it was hardly legible for anyone to read. In time, he got frustrated because even though he believed he had improved, he was still told his work was “untidy.” His teacher, too, got more irked because the real issue was never addressed. Be specific in your comments. Pass control back to them.
Chaos, Clutter, Consequences
At some point in time, you may realize that, no matter what you say, your child still behaves in a way that you do not expect of them. Perhaps they won’t do their assignments on time or they still dump dirty clothes on the floor or leave smelly socks in their shoes unless you remind them to throw them in the laundry basket. When this occurs once too often, it’s time to resort to consequences. Some attitudes need more than a discussion or a light conversation to replace.
Example: You have a function that you need to attend one evening. Your thirteen-year-old son asks if he could play a computer game first before he does his homework. You don’t feel like it, but after a moment of consideration, you say “Yes.” However, you say, he can only play for fifteen minutes and must do his homework after that, before bedtime. Say upfront what the consequences are if he does not fulfil his promise. One possible consequence is that, if you come home and he is still tapping away at the computer, he will not be allowed to play the computer first before doing his homework for a week. Decide if you are prepared to give in to excuses.
You arrive home just before ten, his bedtime, and he is still glued on his video game. Your son looks up, realizes that he got caught up in the game and apologizes. What should you do?
First of all, you left him with the responsibility of making sure he honours the promise he made to you and to himself. When you are away, he made the choice of not following through. In this case, your son deserves to learn the consequences of his behaviour. When you do this, your son will realize that he made a bad choice by not keeping his promise. A healthy discovery of the reality of life: You cannot run away from the consequences of your own actions.
What if he pleads, “But Dad, I’m so sorry. I just lost track of time.”
You can acknowledge his apology in an even voice: “Apologizing is the right thing to do. And the homework needs to be done.” The apology is expected, but it doesn’t right the wrong. Avoid generalizations like, “You just showed me that you can’t be trusted.” Generalizations are not only hurtful; they completely disregard all the good effort your child has made earlier.
Children Learn Fast from Consequences
The good thing about consequences is that we avoid lecturing, yelling and heavy discussions. Children learn fast from having to confront the outcomes of their own demeanour. Positive behaviour has a positive outcome and negative behaviour has a negative outcome. Unless your child learns from the consequences of their own actions, it would be difficult to expect them to make better choices in life.
Just because your child forgot to lock their bike last night doesn’t mean they will grow to become an irresponsible adult outright. But such behaviour can lead to more of the same if ignored. State the facts. State your concern. Say “Your bike wasn’t locked last night. I was afraid it might be stolen.” Do not talk about past misdeeds that have been dealt with. Your child deserves a fresh chance to prove himself or herself once a misdeed has been dealt with. Equally important, don’t cook up excuses for your child when they misbehave. Irresponsible behaviour needs to be confronted, not swept under the carpet with explanations like, “She’s just like her aunt when she was ten.”
Learning to be responsible takes time. A long time. Far better to have a dozen small consequences and build from there, rather than letting them have their own way while resentment simmers inside you and then … wham! make them pay for it with one major, harsh consequence. Every small but meaningful, effective consequence constitutes a healthy discovery which helps to deepen your child’s sense of responsibility.
Featured image: Victoria_Borodinova