Teaching vs. Telling: The Parenting Hack to Reduce Frustration

Teaching vs. Telling: The Parenting Hack to Reduce Frustration

ParentingUpdated May 12, 2023

by Quinn Kelly

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

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A few months ago, my family of six was all at a hotel, and it was time for breakfast. 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 myself with mistaken confidence.

Ten minutes in, when my 5-year-old’s hands had touched five of the 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 to myself.

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!”

Then, I felt a level of conviction in my heart as I said the word tongs. It occurred to me that we don’t usually keep tongs around at home for the boys to grab their food. And we don’t eat at buffets when we go out to eat. And maybe I have never told them the importance of not touching someone else’s food because of germs . . . other than just saying, “Don’t touch that!”

I wanted to be disappointed with their behavior. But then I had to ask myself, “Have I ever really done a quick and easy buffet guideline talk?” The answer was no. So were they in the wrong? Or was it me?

Parenting Hack: Teaching Children vs. Telling Them

If I were to ask you what the goal of parenting is . . . what would you say?

  • To make children who are good at listening to you?
  • To make children who are successful in the world on their own?

At first glance, they may seem like similar questions. But with a closer look, you see they take a parent’s mindset in two different directions.

Indeed, the old-school way of parenting pertained to the former, “Do what I say and stay quiet.” I tell you what you need to do and you behave. Parenting is/was all about getting your children to obey you with little resistance or protest.

And while children must respect and listen to their parents, this doesn’t get to the root of raising responsible humans. This just teaches your children that you get frustrated if they don’t listen to you. In the long term, they may be great at letting you know they follow your rules in person but may not care or understand within their own heart why they are making a decision, which may translate into making bad decisions once they leave a parent’s wing.

However, if a parent begins to look at their primary role as teaching children how to be in the world, they are likely setting their child up for great success. They’re also reducing the frustrating moments when children do something contrary to what they believe should be happening. Because their first thought isn’t, “You should do what I want,” but instead, “Have I made sure you understand what is expected of you and why?”

So often, we innately want our children to listen to us. And hear me say, that is normal! And obedience to our directives is key for our children’s success too! But in addition to obedience, it’s beneficial for our children to understand why we ask them to do things. We have to teach them what our expectations are. This parenting hack helps us not have to say the same things repeatedly. It also teaches them to care about the consequences, not just us.

In essence, teaching children does something powerful and necessary for healthy parenting. It changes our parenting from “reactive” parenting that only 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, “Get down because you can easily fall and hit your head. And my job is to protect you!”

The first method tells them they need to listen or get in trouble. The second method teaches them to understand why their choices are important. It isn’t just about making a parent happy. (Even though a teaching parent still has to offer consequences for disobedience too.) It just leads with a teaching mindset first before consequences.

But there is still a difference between those types of consequences. The child begins to see and feel a more caring message from their parents, “When you choose to do things that cause physical or emotional harm to yourself, I must intervene! Because I want you to make good decisions!”

Instead of feeling like their parent’s job is to tell them what to do, they begin to feel like their parent’s job guides their decisions because they love me. This increases a child’s desire to want to respond to you quickly. And this means everybody wins.

So how can you use this parenting hack to teach children vs. telling them?

1. Identify situations where misbehavior increases.

Instead of waiting for misbehavior to appear, pinpoint where you see it most and develop a plan for how you will respond and what your children need to know.

—They cry every time I take them to Target because they want toys, so I will bring a toy in my purse and find one thing they can pick out for them that is something on my list.

2. Talk through what expectations you have before entering this environment.

Once you know their triggers, teach them what the plan will be.

—Kids, when we go to the store today, I want you to know we are not buying toys. But we are buying some things on the list that you can use. I will let you pick out your toothpaste and shampoo. But we aren’t buying things we don’t need. If you cry and throw a fit before checkout, we will put back the shampoo and toothpaste you picked. You can play with the barbie in my purse as much as you want while you sit.

3. Ask 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 expectations, then explain again. Then don’t forget it’s often said the average person has to hear and see the same message at least seven times to retain it. Then remember with children that expectations will be better met and respected when reminded more frequently.

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