They CAN Be Taught

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This past year, I have learned one truth in mothering that has made me more optimistic than ever: They can be taught, and I can teach them!

I’m not talking about academic learning here, but all the other life skills that must be learned: everyday manners and how to get along with others; good habits of health and grooming; work ethic and chore skills; how to handle disappointments; values, attributes, charitable giving, and so forth. There’s an enormous amount of information to be passed from parent to child. And if I start teaching them now, my kids will actually learn!


I have not always known this. Last year, I spent a week in the pit of mothering despair after my oldest child, a should-be-sweet five-year-old son, had been SO defiant for SO many days that I could not see the end in sight. My crystal ball showed only naughtiness and conflict far into our future. I must have irreparably damaged him somehow, I thought. And he might have been such a sweet boy….

Well, this past year has taught me that the dear boy is not damaged goods at all—he just has not been taught all the lessons he needs to know over a lifetime. I had been expecting him to naturally behave with good manners and care about other people because I do. But I can now see that attributes like empathy and compassion require time and practice to be learned. So what he needs is a mother willing to teach him the things he needs to learn!

Recognizing my role as a teacher has given me enormous optimism in the face of otherwise unpleasant experiences. Now, instead of being embarrassed when my daughter fails to share a toy or does something disruptive at church, I think, “What does she not understand yet?” or, “What can I teach that will help her see the value in this?”

Last night, for example, my son accidentally gashed his friend in the forehead. While I rushed to lend first aid, I noticed my son hung back from the whole situation, showing no empathy or remorse. Not long ago, I would have been horrified by his behavior and fretted that I had somehow taught him indifference to human suffering. But through the lens of my role as teacher, I recognized that he simply needed to learn how to demonstrate empathy for somebody else’s pain. Later, after his friend had left, we spent ten minutes discussing and practicing appropriate behaviors, and I could tell my son appreciated the lesson!

Once we realize that our children can (and often want to) learn better forms of behavior, we can let the teaching begin! Any challenging moment, and even deeply engrained habits, can be reshaped with careful focus.

 Here are five tips that have helped me figure out how and what to teach my children.

 1. Believe in Growth

One of the first things to teach our children is that they can keep learning and improving. In her book Mindset, psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that the only factor limiting our ability to change is our own mindset. We pass on a growth mindset to our children by encouraging them to strive to do their best, and by helping them to view “failures” as opportunities to learn. Suspending our judgment allows children to make mistakes and learn gradually, free from the labels that could impede their progress.


2. Become Miss Manners

We all know that the first step to teaching our children anything is to first master the concepts ourselves. But good examples are not the only thing they need; children also need the reasons for proper behaviors explained to them. For me, checking out books on etiquette and manners was the key to filling out my understanding and preparing myself to teach. A great place to start is this list of 25 Manners Every Kid Should Know.


3. Track Behaviors

Having a place to record specific incidents and behaviors you want addressed can keep everyone tuned in to the lessons they need. My husband and I have a notebook with a section for each child where we write down specific observations of troubling behaviors and ideas for possible solutions. With this tool, we can more patiently await opportune times to teach the needed lessons, make sure none are skipped, and prepare to teach them in more engaging and interesting ways. The issues to work on in our family become more concrete and manageable when we write them down.


4. Establish Routine Family Teaching Times

While teaching can happen anytime and anywhere, I really appreciate having specific, established times during our weekly family routine for teaching in our home. My family holds mini-lessons during the breakfast hour, a 5:00 pm “chore training” session (which coincides nicely with cleaning up for Daddy’s arrival), as well as a weekly family night, which includes, among other things, a lesson geared toward helping us all to make good choices in our lives. The pot is sweetened with a treat and/or a game, making family night something the kids look forward to. Establishing formal teaching routines helps us all to remember that parents have a responsibility to teach!


5. Don’t Check “Teaching” Off Your List

It helps me to remember, after finishing a brilliant lesson on dental hygiene or bicycle safety, that teaching my children will never be “done.” Not only might that very same child need additional reminders, but my other children will likely need that same lesson later on. Moreover, as the children grow, their current needs change, requiring agility on my part. There will certainly be seasons when they are more open to my wisdom than other times. But ultimately, I believe the wisdom we share at any age or stage of parenting will lend itself to the benefit of each child.

Like the title of Marie C. Ricks’s promising book, I believe parents can get The Children You Want with the Kids You Have, through teaching. Becoming my children’s “life” teacher has helped me to feel optimistic about their future. Of course, I see that they still struggle even after my instruction. But I don’t worry so much, because I know we have time to work and reason together. I can be more patient with the process of learning when I see we are practicing behaviors that will lead to happy, productive lives.


QUESTION: Are you dealing with any behavioral concerns that have you discouraged and frustrated? Would reframing the problem as a teaching issue help you deal with it in a more positive way?

CHALLENGE: If feasible, try to work in a formal, regular teaching time with your children. Start by brainstorming what you’d most like to teach them, and the best way to do so.



    • Shawna Woodworth says

      Here’s something to try: Check out Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle as a book on tape and listen to it with your kids. It is perfectly amusing to young children and it gives mothers a boost to hear of all the wacky ways that children can be “cured” of their worst habits. Also amusing are the conversations between mothers in the book. We all feel like we’re helpless sometimes, and this book puts a charming slant on the whole dilemma. Hope that helps!

    • Shawna Woodworth says

      Ahhh, Thanks Debi! Fancy meeting up with you here! And then that one time in Costco… always when I least expect it, and always a pleasant surprise!

      You should know that I still refer to the “mental notes” I took while watching you nurture your little ones years ago. Thanks for your stellar example. Speaking of teaching, I have yet to attempt to teach my two-year-old to read “linoleum,” but I think about that all the time!

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