A Parent’s [New] Favorite Question

by | Dec 4, 2014 | Schools & Education

Robert Craig. Photo courtesy of Above Grade Level Fredericksburg and Northern Virginia.

Elizabeth Colon of Above Grade Level Fredericksburg and Northern Virginia has given this week’s bi-weekly column to guest blogger Robert Craig, whom she calls a “trainer, teacher, dedicated father of five and high level thinker.”

Do you remember the last time you did something really stupid? You spilled coffee down your front, got spaghetti on your favorite tie, or tripped on a stair or curb and almost fell flat on your face? What makes it worse is that you probably hung onto that memory a lot longer than it was worth.

Can you remember what you did in the first minute after the “event” occurred? I’ll bet you had some pretty ugly things to say to yourself.  In fact, if anybody heard your “self-talk,” they would wonder if they even knew you.  If they heard how forcefully you chastised yourself, they might have institutionalized you! In that moment, I’m sure your self-beating went on for two or three minutes accompanied by muttering and lots of head shaking.  You were so mad and disappointed in yourself – had anyone had anything to say to you in that moment you surely would have had a nasty rebuttal just waiting for them.

We often respond in these moments without a filter.

As parents we usually do this when our kids make a mistake, too. They drop something, lose something, forget where something is or get side tracked from something they were working on.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve begrudgingly driven back to school and rapped on the door loud enough to arouse the janitorial staff, just to get a book one of the kids left behind.  As parents, we always have something to say — you can count on us! We have wonderful statements like, “What’s wrong with you?” or “You’re so clumsy- don’t you watch where you’re going?” or “I told you not to try and carry all of that and look what happened!”

Truth is, we’re good at it because we are experts at being critical of ourselves in similar situations.

Usually, to our kids, it seems like we’ve been waiting for any excuse to unload on them, and if they decide to respond to one of our berating statements, it’s usually not very nice –- they’re not thinking about the words they’re using anymore than we do in the same situation.  And we’re ready –- we’re parents after all! “Don’t speak to me like that, young man” or the classic, “Don’t backtalk me, I’m the mom!” Take a minute and think about your favorite one liner, because I probably missed some really good ones you’ve been working on for quite some time.

Some of our knee jerk reactions, when we stop and think about them, are in fact pretty great imitations of what we learned growing up.

Louis Pasteur’s dad was not the typical dad.  As the story goes, Louis was like most kids who made mistakes, dropped things, spilled things, tripped and lost things.  His dad was different.  One morning, Louis grabbed a glass milk bottle and took it out of the icebox (we’re talking ancient history — the old-fashioned icebox). The condensation on the bottle made it very slippery and it slipped out of his hands and smashed into a million pieces on the floor.  Louis’ dad didn’t lose his mind.  He had lots of things to say, but he had learned to do things differently.  He got a rag to help Louis clean it up.  There was no yelling, no berating, no put downs, just cleaning.  When it was all done, Louis’ dad turned to him and said, “So Louis, what did you just learn?”

Louis was a smart kid, just like our kids, and he said, “Dad, I learned to put a hand underneath the slippery bottle so it doesn’t get away from me and crash on the floor.” His dad didn’t have to yell, curse or get up on his soapbox.

Once we’re beyond that minute or two of self-berating, we get it — we know what to do and what not to do the next time.

Smart parents adopt that line as their own and use it all the time.  The secret is in the timing. Don’t ask it in the first two minutes — they’re too busy beating themselves up to hear it. I’ve waited and asked the question the next day and got an answer I loved, and it truly saved my relationship with my child.  Not only that, it have saved me the need to preach and saved him from feeling more stupid than he did already.

“What did you learn?” or “What did you just learn?” will become your favorite parenting question.

At the end of the day, we want our kids learning from every experience, positive or negative.  The language we use when we are teaching them has long term affects on the way they “self-talk.” When you think about it, aren’t you glad Louis’s dad, Jean-Joseph Pastear, asked him, “What did you just learn?” Obviously Louis learned from a great many things. He brought the world pasteurized milk, vaccinations for many diseases including rabies, and the knowledge of how germs impact our health.

What did you just learn?

Previous columns from Above Grade Level Fredericksburg

Talking to Your Child about Their Report Card

Tips to Prevent Homework Meltdowns

5 Tips for Taking the SAT

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