Teaching vs. Telling: The Parenting Hack To Reduce Frustration
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Teaching vs. Telling: The Parenting Hack To Reduce Frustration

Learn the difference between teaching and telling children about rule and how to help them understand the consequences of their actions.

Published February 25, 2019

by Quinn Kelly

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Medically reviewed by Rachel Tomlinson

Registered Psychologist
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A few months ago, my family of six was at a hotel. It seemed simple enough for my hubby and me to take the boys to breakfast at the hotel buffet. My sons are 10, 7, 5, and 2. “What could go wrong?” I asked with mistaken confidence. 10 minutes in, my 5-year-old’s hands had touched five muffins, and my toddler was putting every piece of fruit on his plate. I felt my frustration build. “Don’t you all know any better? Have wild animals raised you?” I thought. At that moment, I pointed to the tongs and said, “This is what you grab food with! Don’t you know what tongs are for? And please don’t put all the apples on your plate! That is rude!”

I felt a level of conviction as I said “tongs.” It occurred to me that we don’t usually have tongs at home for the boys to grab their food. And we don’t eat at buffets when we go out. And maybe I have never told them the importance of not touching others’ food because of germs . . . besides saying, “Don’t touch that!” I wanted to be disappointed with their behavior. But I had to ask, “Have I ever done a quick and easy buffet guideline talk?” The answer was no. So, were they in the wrong? Or was it me? If you’ve ever been in a similar position, the parenting hack of teaching vs. telling children how to behave may be helpful.

Parenting Hack: Teaching Children vs. Telling Them

Old-school ways of parenting were focused on expectations that children should be seen and not heard. They were based on the premise that parents know best. Parenting is/was all about getting your children to obey you with little resistance or protest.1 The focus was on “telling” children the correct way to behave rather than teaching them “why” certain behaviors are appropriate (or not). The former results in children being fearful or aware of parents’ expectations. They won’t necessarily understand the connection to things like social expectations, empathy, or kindness. Here’s why we want to focus on teaching (instead of simply telling) our children how to behave:

Learning the “Why” Behind Rules and Expectations

While children need to respect and listen to their parents and other authority figures, this doesn’t get to the root of raising responsible humans. This teaches your children that you get frustrated if they don’t listen to you (instead of understanding why you shouldn’t touch communal buffet food with your fingers and put it back). In the long term, they may follow your rules when you’re around, but they may not care or understand why they are making a decision. This may translate into making bad decisions once they leave a parent’s wing.

Instead, if a parent views their primary role as teaching children how to be in the world, they are likely setting their child up for great success.2 They’re also reducing the frustrating moments when children do something contrary to what they believe should happen. Their first thought isn’t, “You should do what I want,” but “Have I made sure you understand what I expect of you and why?”

So often, we innately want our children to listen to us. And hear me say, that is normal! Although it’s helpful when our children are obedient, they need to understand why we ask them to do things. We have to teach them our expectations.2 This parenting hack of teaching versus telling helps us not repeatedly say the same things. It also teaches our children to care about the consequences and outcomes of their actions.

Engaging in Proactive Parenting

In essence, teaching children does something powerful and necessary for healthy parenting. It changes our parenting from “reactive” parenting that responds to misbehavior to proactive parenting that aims to stop the behavior before it starts. Instead of “Get down right now, or you’re going to be in trouble!” we can try saying, “What do you think might happen if you climb over the chair like that?”

The first method tells them they need to listen or else they’ll get in trouble. The second method teaches them to understand why their choices are important and gets them using their “prefrontal cortex.” This part of the brain is responsible for logic and reasoning. The prefrontal cortex helps them learn to risk assess and think about actions and consequences.3 It isn’t just about making a parent happy. (Even though a teaching parent still has to offer repercussions for disobedience.) It just leads with a teaching mindset first before consequences.

Using Natural Consequences as a Teaching Tool

Although it’s nuanced, there is a difference between the types of consequences. When a child can experience natural consequences, it helps them understand that their behavior has natural outcomes or consequences. This helps them learn responsibility for their actions.4 Instead of them just learning to be obedient, you can help your child consider the outcomes, and then they make a choice.

When you follow this parenting hack, children feel like their parents’ job is to guide their decisions because “they love me.” They won’t feel like their parent’s job is to tell them what to do or constantly feel like mom or dad is nagging them. More importantly, they start to make connections between their behavior and outcomes.3 This autonomy and responsibility that develops over time means everybody wins!

How To Teach (Not Tell) Kids How To Behave

So, how can you use this parenting hack to teach children vs. tell them about their actions and consequences? Here are some concrete steps you can take:

1. Identify Situations Where Misbehavior Increases

Instead of waiting for misbehavior to appear, pinpoint where you see it most. Then, develop a plan for how you will respond and what your children need to know. Say your child runs away every time you go to the park, which is dangerous. You could sit down with them beforehand and check their understanding of what might happen if they got lost or you weren’t around to help them if they got stuck or in trouble in the playground. Instead of telling them to stick close by, you are helping them understand why you are asking this.

2. Talk Through Your Expectations Before Entering This Environment

Once you know their triggers, teach them what the plan or natural consequences will be. Remember, a natural consequence must “fit the crime” or clearly link their behavior and the outcome. For instance, in the park scenario, you could say, “We are going to the park today. And like we talked about, it’s important that you stay close by. If you can’t stay close by or run off, we will have to leave the park.”

3. Ask Your Children To Explain What the Expectations Are

Once you are done explaining, ask them to reflect on what you’ve asked. If they still don’t understand your expectations, then explain again. It’s normal for both children and adults to hear things several times before they fully grasp a new concept. Remember that children will better meet and respect your expectations when you remind them more frequently and consistently.

4. Let Them Experience Natural Consequences

Sometimes (when it’s safe to do so), it’s important that our children learn from their behavior. Instead of saying, “Hold your cup upright, or your drink will spill,” you might say, “I wonder what will happen if you tip your cup?” Then, allow them to feel the impact of their choice. Will they quickly right their cup? Or will they continue to tilt it and lose their drink on the floor? Safe opportunities to learn about consequences are essential.

Our children are constantly learning and growing. It can be tempting to rely on “telling” rather than “teaching.” But helping our children understand the consequences and outcomes of their behavior and flexing the logic and reasoning part of their brain will help them in the future. Using more positive discipline techniques helps children learn for themselves and make meaningful connections about their behavior. They can also take more responsibility for their actions. This parenting hack takes the pressure off you, which can help improve your relationship if you aren’t nagging all the time or constantly saying “no.”

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Quinn Kelly Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
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Quinn is a mother of four, licensed marriage and family therapist, host of the “Renew You” Podcast, and author of “Raising Boys: A Christian Parenting Book.” Throughout the last decade,… Read more

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