Why Lectures Backfire
It is hard to watch our children make mistakes. Sometimes we’re so concerned about their well-being our temper flares and we resort to giving lectures. We have arguments. Cooler heads clearly don’t prevail all the time.
We know how complicated life can be. How complex relationships can be. We even can see danger coming. We’ve earned our wisdom through our own missteps and sometimes have endured pain as a result of unwise choices or disastrous decisions. We want our lived experience and earned wisdom to protect our children. If only they could draw from our bank of knowledge to avoid making their own mistakes.
Deliver Information They Understand
We can deliver knowledge in ways that our children will understand and that will help them learn to make their own wise decisions. However, when we tell kids what to do or warn them of dire consequences through often heated and emotion-driven lectures (or arguments) we push them away from us. Sometimes we end up pushing them towards the very decisions we fear. Consider this sample lecture below. Does it remind you of anything you heard when you were younger?
“Don’t you know that what you are doing, which we’ll call behavior A, is going to lead to consequence B? I never imagined a child of mine being involved with consequence B. It makes me wonder what’s going on in that brain of yours! If consequence B happens, it is only a matter of time before C happens to you and possibly even D. You never would have even known what B was, let alone D, if you didn’t begin hanging out with Tony. Even Tony’s mother knows he’s nothing but trouble. If D happens, it’s a slippery slope to E, F, and G. Look at me young man! I’m not saying this for my own good! The truth is, I’m most worried that you and your friends could begin doing H. That can lead to I. Do you know what happens to people who have I happen to them!?! A lot of them die.”
What Teens Hear
What does the young person hear? “Whaa whaa whaa… a lot of them die.” Cue the Peanuts cartoon TV special with a gloomy ending.
They hear the condescension of our message and the fear in our tone, but not a word that we are saying. Why do our teens not hear our well-intentioned, heartfelt, messages?
- The ability to use abstract reasoning is something that arrives in middle or late adolescence. (Sometime around middle school or high school.) Children and early adolescents think concretely — meaning they see things pretty much as they appear — at face value. They don’t tend to think about the future. Rather, they live in the present as they see it.
- People who are stressed cannot think abstractly, meaning they cannot consider nuances and have trouble thinking of future outcomes. They are running from an imaginary tiger and the brain is not in “negotiating” or “thinking it through” mode. When we lecture teens, particularly if we do so amidst our own state of panic or while yelling, we push their buttons and enhance their fears. They have lost the ability to absorb our message or use reason to understand or solve their problems — they can only think concretely.
When young people believe parents don’t think they’re capable of wise behaviors or they witness our anger but don’t understand the lessons we are trying to offer, we risk moving them towards rebellion. They may set out to prove to us just how wrong we were. Our intentions backfire.
The Good News
The good news is there are ways to get the lesson across to our kids. We want to honor the intelligence they have and facilitate them to make wise decisions. It’s about changing the mathematical structure of how we talk. Adjusting it so it matches their stage of development. It is also about calmly delivering the message so we don’t turn on their panic mode of thinking.
The Math Problem
Let’s consider the lecture in shorthand: Your behavior now could lead to a very dangerous outcome depending on a series of mysterious variables. That’s algebra! It is abstract by its very nature and a young person who is not yet developmentally able to think in that way, or who is in panic mode, will not be able to grasp an algebra problem.
On the other hand, even in a panic, a person is able to think in concrete mathematical terms. They can grasp that one plus two equals three. Once they start with the number three, they can easily add the number four to understand the concept of seven.
Our challenge therefore is twofold:
- To choose the timing of our conversations with our children so that we can remain calm. We do not want to be responsible for pushing them into a panic mode that will make them incapable of considering the link between actions and consequences.
- To talk in a way that even somebody with concrete thought can fully understand. The idea is to get them to understand point by point so that they get it…get it…get it… got it! When we make it easier for our children to come to their own conclusions they feel wiser because they have figured things out, own the solutions and have no reason to rebel. It is about learning to change the mathematical structure of our sentences from algebra to simple math.
This parenting stuff is hard. The good news is there are strategies to make it easier and more effective. If you know somebody who cares deeply about their children, but too easily launches into lecture mode, pass this article along.