It was a Monday night. We had finished dinner and needed to leave for a meeting. As I carried food from the table, I called back, “Kids, clear your places, wash up, and brush teeth.”
I heard a snicker and turned around. Two of the kids were bringing their plates to the kitchen. The other two already had and were heading to the bathroom.
They already know what to do.
We’ve been doing the same exact thing post-meals for, basically, their entire lives. Three meals a day.
There is zero need for me to instruct them in our after-meal trifecta, but I keep doing it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that sentence to Mara, then turned and repeated it to Robbie (who was sitting right beside her) and then to Zeke (right next to him) and then a minute later to Lily (right next to him).
They have zero need of my instruction in this particular area, so why am I instructing them?
The Habit of Over-explaining
I do this type of over-explaining all the time as a parent.
I say, “It’s time to go!”
I could stop there. They know what to do.
But I don’t stop there.
I say, “It’s time to go! Get your shoes on, grab your stuff, and get in the car.”
It’s time to get ready for bed.
I could just say, “Get ready for bed.”
But I don’t stop there. I continue, “Get your pajamas on, brush your teeth, and go potty.”
They know what I mean when I say to get ready for bed. They’re past the training phase. They get it.
But the Kids Made Me Do It!
Parents everywhere are nodding. And some of are you thinking, “But seriously, if I don’t tell my kid precisely what to do, it won’t get done.”
I know that might be true. It’s definitely true in many situations with my kids, long past the point when they know what to do.
On our last road trip, we were getting ready to leave a fast food restaurant. I told one son to throw his trash away. In a fast food restaurant, there are trash cans every five feet.
My son looked at me and said, “Where’s the trash can?”
Why, I wonder, is it his instinct to ask me instead of to swivel his cute little head on his cute little neck and find it himself?
I’ll tell you why.
But first, the rest of the story.
Thirty seconds later Mara walked by, and I said, “Mara, throw your trash away, we’re about to leave.”
She nodded and, without a second’s hesitation, said, “Where’s the trash can?”
What’s the common denominator here?
I am. I am the common denominator. I am the one training these kids on how to think and speak, what they’re capable of, what they’re allowed to do, and so on.
[We can blame my husband for some of this, too, but I’m the one who’s with them almost all the time.]
Two Ways We Frustrate Our Kids
I’m always answering questions for the kids, and even though I know where the information comes from, they often don’t. To them, it does seem as if I simply have an unending, infinite, mysterious source of knowledge. (The older ones are just now figuring out that I make stuff up or Google it all the time.)
In short, I’ve trained them to depend on me for the most minute instructions in two ways:
1) By providing the wrong information. Instead of explaining the systems, processes, and principles which make our little world run, I just give them seemingly arbitrary instructions over and over again.
2) By never ending the training phase. Instead of recognizing when they’ve achieved mastery in some skill or area, I continue to instruct in the same things as if we’re in an eternal training cycle.
Providing the Wrong Information
The systems seem obvious to me. The reasons why we, say, put our gum wrappers in the trash can instead of in Mom’s pocket seem apparent.
I get frustrated by needing to instruct in the same basic things, over and over again. But to my kids, many of these “rules” are arbitrary; they don’t know the reasoning for the rules, so they can’t determine for themselves when the rules apply and when they don’t.
As a result, my kids tend to think they need help figuring stuff out, all the time. The instructions might change at anytime, and they don’t know when or why.
They aren’t confident enough in their understanding of how the world works to take initiative and apply what they know.
So instead of thinking, acting, and being capable, they think, act, and are dependent. I’ve given them a lot of information, but not the right information.
They need to understand the foundations that govern acceptable human behavior. No, I’m not talking a crash course in philosophy and human ethics. This is just about giving our kids some basic principles and bigger-picture perspectives.
We know, as adults, that some rules apply (or should apply) all the time (be kind; don’t kill people) and some can be bent or ignored in certain situations (don’t wear white after Labor Day; eat dessert last; don’t stay up too late).
Unless we teach our kids the reasons behind the rules, they’re limited to direct dependence on us. They won’t have the knowledge to know when and how to apply the rules without our direction. So they’ll wait for it.
And we’ll keep giving it to them, feeling frustrated and wondering why we have to explain everything all the time.
Failing to End the Training Phase
In some scenarios, like the post-dinner experience, we parents just have a habit we need to break.
My kids know why we do the plate-clearing and teeth-brushing and hand-washing. And they do it, with or without my reminders. So the issue is my habit: I grew accustomed to instructing them in this procedure, and the training worked, and that’s great. But now that training is over, it’s time for me to drop the instructing.
Less experience needs more management, explanation, and help. The four-year-old needs more help with bedtime than the seven-year-old does.
Some skills require longer training periods than others. The more complex a skill is, the more training is required to master it. And the less frequently a skill is used, the more training is required to remember it.
But training in any skill is not infinite. We need to give ourselves endpoints and also let our kids know they’ve reached a level of mastery. This gives us a release from the repetition. It also gives our children freedom and confidence to use hard-won skills.
From Trainer to Mentor
In both cases, whether providing the wrong information or failing to end a training phase, one simple shift can help. The shift is to see ourselves less as trainers (or instructors or teachers) and more as mentors.
Ideally, this is how our relationship with our children will develop in all areas: we’ll move from instructive parenting to relational friendship as our children grow and mature.
We can make that move in a hundred little ways every day with our kids, if we’re watching for it. I’m still learning, and here are the notes-to-self that are helping me get there:
- I need to recognize when training is over. In any particular skill or area of life, it’s important for me and my child to know when they’ve gained independence.
- I need to set clear standards. I can’t expect my kids to master a skill or understand a principle if I’ve never clearly explained it.
- I need to accept variation. Asking for perfection, or expecting my kids to always do things “my way” is only going to frustrate them and me. I need to give them some freedom to interpret and adjust, as long as the basic goal/principle is kept in place.
- I need to reach out as a mentor. When they fail at something they’ve learned, I can find a way to relate and encourage rather than berate and punish. “Hey, you know what? I get really tired of doing laundry, and sometimes I just want to throw my dirty clothes on the floor, too. But if I did that, soon we’d just have a really messy house and no clothes to wear. Let’s work together on this, and maybe we can find a way to make taking care of our clothes easier. Have any ideas?”
- I need to look for their intentions. The methods matter, sure, but the motive matters even more. There’s no easier way for me to kill my child’s drive to be helpful and loving than to misread their good intentions and punish their best efforts.
I’m still learning this myself, but when I’ve remembered to apply it, I’ve seen great results.
My daughter, who is in charge of cleaning out her cat’s litter box, was consistently “forgetting” to carry the bag o’ poop out to the big trash can in the driveway. Instead, I kept finding it in the bathroom trash. Or the kitchen trash. Stinking up the place. Being gross.
I’d reminded her, several times, with a bit of a stern face. This time, though, I took a different approach. We happened to be alone in the basement (a rarity in a six-person household), and I told her, “I’ve noticed you’ve been forgetting to take the cat trash out to the big can. I forget what I’m supposed to do a lot, too, and sometimes I just don’t want to do my chores. Or sometimes it’s just too much. If this is too much for you, let’s think about another way to work it out. I don’t want you to feel discouraged and overwhelmed. Let me know if you have an idea for how to make it easier, or if you need help, OK?”
And she…Well, she just kind of looked at me. And nodded. And smiled a hesitant little smile, like she was still waiting for the lecture.
That was four days ago, and she’s marched that cat refuse out to the driveway trash can every single day, and I haven’t said another word about it.
I think this can work, you guys. And I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, too! We’re all in this productive parenting thing together. Let’s help each other out.
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