The other day, I had a conversation with my sister. She is a very intelligent person and a devoted mom, and she thinks deeply and often about people and relationships--especially parenting relationships and issues.
She posed what I thought was a very perceptive and intriguing question. I've written frequently about my belief that parents needs to coach their children. The parent, I believe, is supposed to tell their children when they do something wrong and help them correct it. This means correcting bad behavior, bad social habits, and so on and so on. I think that many (but not all) social problems are at least partly the responsibility of the child having the problems and that they can improve their lot with honest feedback.
My sister, without disagreeing with the premise, pushed me on this a little. How, she asked, do you do this without making your child paranoid, or becoming a constant voice in their head that they will hear the rest of their lives, one that will make them feel awkward and insecure, etc.? How do you do this while still sending them messages that you love and accept them? Especially when you are trying to help them address quirks in their personality that cause social problems?
Her questions got me thinking, and we had a very interesting conversation as we batted ideas around. I've been thinking about this and want to pass on a few thoughts.
First of all, I believe that every parent knows their children better than anyone else and a parent's gut feeling will, I believe, be far more likely to be correct than advice given by even experienced, well-meaning bloggers. I think the united approach of a father and mother is powerful and will almost always be right--when the parents listen to each other and then work together. I recognize that situation is not available to everyone, but where it is, I strongly encourage it. Regardless, you know your child. So, keep that in mind.
With that, here are my thoughts on how and when to provide correction and coaching.
1. A master teacher and leader in my church once said, "Correct the problem, not the incident that brings it to your attention." I think that is incredibly powerful. Reacting in the middle of a situation is sometimes necessary, but I find that my judgement is not usually optimal in the heat of any moment. I think using specific incidents to bring up a topic can be useful, but I think responding to specific incidents, in the moment, is not wise.
2. The correction/coaching needs to be about them, not about you. That is, you need to be teaching them because you want them to be happier and better, to have more friends, to be more successful, etc. Not because they embarrass you, or because you are mad, etc. This can be a tough one. Most parents I know have children who have done things that leave them embarrassed from time to time. It's important to make sure that your motive in correcting them will really help them and is not simply because you are annoyed or embarrassed.
3. The correction ought to be focused on specific behaviors and choices, which can be controlled, as opposed to personal traits and characteristics, which are more difficult to control. For example, telling a child that they talk too much may be less helpful than saying that you've noticed they are not listening to their friends. Talking too much is a bit vague. It might make the child feel stupid, or embarrassed. It's difficult to measure or monitor. However, focusing more on what people are saying, asking a question or two for everything that the child says--that seems much different to me.
4. The correction ought to be balanced with sincere compliments and expressions of love. And I don't mean saying, "Honey you're a great kid, but...." I mean that we need to be looking for things to praise about our children and that they ought to hear this kind of thing more frequently than the correction. I would suggest that the praise not be extravagant, and that it be tied to specific choices and behaviors. "I'm so proud of the way you have focused on your homework this week...." as opposed to "You are so wonderful! What a smart kid!"
I heard a statistic on some NPR program years ago. It was about happy marriages and went something like this. Happy marriages have honest communication about problems. However, the ratio of positive to negative comments was something like 7:1. I don't remember the exact numbers, but it was not far away from that.
5. The coaching should be done in a direct, clear way. Beating around the bush, hand-wringing, and trying to soften blows seems to usually backfire and make it seem like a bigger deal than it really is. The image I like to think of is a scalpel. If you have surgery, you want a surgeon with a fast, decisive hand and a super sharp scalpel. Not someone hacking away with a butterknife. Correction should be done quickly, decisively, and with clarity. And then it should end and you should start sewing them up and helping them move on.
After years of trial-and-mostly-error, here's a pattern I've found useful with my children.
"I need to talk to you--I need to teach you something. It's not a big deal, you're not in trouble, but I want to have a conversation and I need your attention. You can chose when, but it needs to be in the next few days."
When they come to you (and if they don't, then they lost the chance to choose when the meeting is, so you grab them), you say, "I noticed the other day that you were pretty sarcastic when you were talking to Mrs. Johnson. Do you know what I mean?"
If necessary, you provide specific examples. I have found it useful to try to be a mirror and hold the behavior up for them to examine by repeating what happened in as clinical a way as possible--no emotion, not judgment, just repeating what I saw.
Sometimes they will understand right away that the behavior was problematic. Other times you might have to help them see it.
Once they see the problem, then you can help them think of a better way to handle the situation. And then it's done. Take them out to eat, play their favorite game, watch their favorite movie--whatever. Change the subject and do something that shows you love them.
That's what works for me. I don't think there is one way to do this, anymore than there is just one kind of parent and one kind of child. I think you have to do what works for you and your own style.
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