Piercing screams came from the playroom. Happy screams or hurting screams? My mom ears pricked up.
Those were not happy screams.
Abandoning my work I marched up the stairs. My daughters backed away from each other upon seeing me. I could see that neither of them was hurt, but they were still shooting daggers at each other with their eyes.
Dutifully, I launched into a lecture on the reasons why they should treat each other with respect.
There are many valid reasons, so this was not a short talk.
By the time I wrapped it up, I had bored myself to the point where I was tempted to roll my eyes and say blah, blah, blah.
Later on, at dinner, one of my kids made a rude remark about another child. My husband and I reacted in sync, and proceeded to tag team a lecture on empathy and kindness.
While we made several excellent points, dinnertime turned into a sort of ultra lecture where the kids ate in bored silence, probably plotting their escapes from the table.
For parents like myself, ultra lectures are fun in the moment, but as with other over-indulgences, like eating a whole tub of Hagen Daz, I tend to feel worse about myself almost as soon as I finish.
I knew that in each of the scenarios above, my children had not gleaned the wisdom I had hoped to convey; those teaching opportunities had been wasted.
Instead of learning valuable life lessons, they felt like victims and learned to ignore my words.
I felt that I had hit the rock-bottom of lecturing.
Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too
As caring, involved parents, we have so much to teach our children; when gems of wisdom pop into our heads, it can be hard to know when to stop.
It turns out, in many cases, less is more.
I have long believed in the importance of explaining the reasoning behind a rule. My 9 year-old daughter points out, however, that while it’s fine for adults to explain something important, when they “go on and on, it’s hard for kids to keep listening”.
The research agrees.
Dr. Melanie Greenburg writes that “when parents go on and on, kids tune them out… The human brain can keep only four ‘chunks’ of information or unique ideas in short-term (active) memory at once. This amounts to about 30 seconds or one or two sentences of speaking”.
Furthermore, academic research reveals that students attending classes where lecturing is the primary format for delivering content are 1.5 times more likely to fail than those engaged in other “active” learning methods.
Renowned parenting and education expert, Alfie Kohn, comes down hard on the practice of lecturing students in this oft re-published and cited 2017 article, and calls for reform across colleges and universities.
If even adults learn better with less lecturing, reason stands that my kids are getting very little out of my long-windedness.
It is time for a change.
Getting to the Bottom of WHY I Lecture my Kids
I have done the painful exercise of catching myself in the act, and I typically find myself lecturing for one of two reasons:
I want my kids to change a pattern of behavior (eg. cooperating with each other or taking better care of their belongings).
I want them to understand and develop an important character trait (eg. honesty, perseverance, etc.).
Here are some positive alternatives to help me reach my true aims without lecturing:
1. Make a List
It’s Tuesday evening, dubbed “Team Tuesday” at our house, because all three of our kids have different sports practices on this night.
Dinner is over, and I have asked my kids to do two things: take care of their dishes and get ready for practice. This also involves filling a water bottle, going to the bathroom, and…what else was it?
So, okay, four or five things, tops.
This process has usually involved me frantically running around barking reminders at everyone, hopping into the mini-van with shoes untied, and dishing out a car-ride lecture on the way to practices.
Besides being a downer way to start the evening, this pattern could potentially turn my kids off the sports they love!
Flash forward to the new Team Tuesdays, where we can all enjoy some upbeat “getting ready music” instead of my angry bellowing, all because of MAKING A LIST.
Here’s how it works.
While I’m making dinner, the kids go to the whiteboard and make a checklist of the things they need to do before we leave. As soon as dishes are cleared, it’s checklist time.
My girls like to use a colored whiteboard marker to check off the items as they complete them.
I use a normal voice to ask something like “Is everything checked off the list?” as they put their shoes on, and then they themselves look over at the list for a double check, while I tie my shoes.
Easy peasy way to bypass the car-ride lectures!
2. Show Rather Than Tell
Another kid insight from my daughter, when I asked for her thoughts on lecturing, was that parents ought to “do that thing teachers do, where they just show you what happened”.
This sounded good, so I asked her to elaborate.
She explained that rather than lecture the class on why they should not leave their backpacks open on their hooks, the teacher would have the students gather around the hooks and look at the mess of fallen belongings beneath them.
“That way they don’t tell us things we already know, because…”
Oooh!… I am about to interrupt her but, stop myself.
My daughter notices and smiles knowingly. “…we get it”, she finishes.
According to the North American Montessori Center (NACM), the practice of showing, not telling is a core tenant Montessori method. “Like the Socratic method of antiquity… students learn through the use of critical thinking, reasoning, and logic. By discovering the answers on their own, knowledge is internalized rather than simply memorized from a teacher’s lecture.”
3. Be Brief
In her article Positive Discipline 101 right here on AFP, Sumitha recommends using calm, one word reminders or simple statements in place of lecturing.
One of my three school age children remembers on her own to empty her lunch kit, put her water bottle in the dishwasher, and hand over any school forms at the end of a school day.
While one in three is better than none, I am tired of explaining to my other kids daily that this is something that they need to make a habit of.
I’ve now instituted a two-word reminder that I am happy to utter cheerfully when they forget this daily task. Because I’ve accepted that they will forget. “Backpack duties”.
And it WORKS! It’s easy for me and we avoid a negative after-school interaction.
Bonus: By keeping it snappy, I’m also able to apply my daughter’s advice to avoid telling my kids things they already know.
4. Let It Go
I probably have control issues, and I certainly have a tendency to nit-pick about things which, in retrospect, matter very little.
“Are you sure you’ll be warm enough with just that hoodie? Did you drink enough water before practice?”
Happiness and habits guru Gretchen Rubin cautions against this habit of over-correcting.
She quotes English writer and moralist Samuel Johnson: “All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle”.
In other words, if it doesn’t really matter, let it go.
Sometimes it’s wise to let something go right then, rather than ruin a happy moment, or cause embarrassment. If it’s important, make a note to revisit it later, or use one of the upcoming strategies to address it.
5. Storytime: Children’s Literature is a Powerful Resource
Whether it’s the courage to overcome my daughter’s fear of the dark, or my son’s sudden interest in the civil rights movement, there’s “kid lit” for that!
My girls have been fighting too much? A quick search gets me a list of six great books dealing with sibling rivalry.
Excellent picture books, biographies, novels and more, written on any topic and aimed at any age group are just a quick search in the library database away.
My six-year-old daughter recently requested that we read Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary. I secretly wasn’t too excited about the 1950’s pick, but found I was hooked from the first page.
We had some great conversations around confidence, feeling embarrassed, and what it means to be a true friend. Best of all, we shared some snuggles and laughs.
6. Ask Better Questions to Get Better Answers
It is understood among teachers that the person doing the most talking is the one doing the most learning. In lesson planning, teachers focus on posing the right questions to engage students and get them talking.
Here are a few tips on asking better questions:
- Avoid yes or no questions
- Dig Deeper (eg. Interesting! Why do you think that is?)
- Sit in silence and give your child time to respond
- Give your full attention
- Avoid interrupting
Recently when my kids were squabbling I just asked them whether they had ever been at a friend’s house when the friend did a lot of fighting with his or her sibling. Each of my kids eagerly shared anecdotes.
Not only were they distracted from their argument, they remembered how stressful and unpleasant it was watching their friends fight. The drama was over just like that.
Tip: Great questions are valuable! If you think of a great question to ask your kids, write it down so you remember to use it later.
7. Hold Family Meetings – It’s Easier (and more fun) Than You Think!
Family meetings are also a great platform for exploring character traits that you value as parents, without lecturing.
Involving your kids in planning and carrying out the meetings lets them know you value their ideas and opinions, and that you trust them with responsibilities.
Depending on ages and abilities, kids can take turns with assignments such as:
- Sharing an inspirational quote or song of the week and leading a discussion
- Writing out the agenda for the meeting
- Acting as chairperson or scribe for the meeting
- Planning an activity related to a topic chosen with a parent (eg. Helping Others)
- Leading Calendar Time for planning and reviewing upcoming event
Tip: For best results, give every family member an assignment and keep meetings short.
We Can Do It!
While it can be very tempting to present the full, advanced master class to our children via “Ultra-Lecture” when they may need a course correction, it is a relief to us all when we remember to reach for a more positive alternative.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a moment today to ask yourself these questions:
- When, or in which situations, do I tend to lecture my child?
- In conversations with my child, who usually does most of the talking?
- Is there something important that I want/need to teach my child?
- Which of the alternatives to lecturing might work for myself and my child?
Then choose an idea to try out this week and give yourself a reminder to help yourself stick to the plan. Once you have tried one of your chosen alternatives to lecturing, reflect on how you feel and on how your child responds.
Do you feel this was a positive and effective way of teaching your child?
If not, what might work better?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
If you catch yourself launching into a lecture, stop. Think about why you have the impulse to do this.
When you find yourself doing all the talking, try asking your child a thoughtful question and wait for his or her response. Sometimes if you just wait a little longer in silence, they will open up and talk more.
If there is an important lesson you want/need to teach your child, choose a more effective and positive alternative to lecturing.
If lecturing is a habit for you, give yourself reminders as you work to break it. For example:
- Post a simple mantra such as “Less is More” or “Listen”, in a prominent place.
- Have a reminder in your phone go off at a time of day when you are most prone to lecturing.
Celebrate your successes by journaling or talking with a friend or loved one. Change is hard, but with every heart to heart conversation with your child, and each new, improved habit, you will know it’s worth the effort.