Not a Teachable Moment

By Elizabeth Sylvester, PhD. As parents we spend a lot of time trying to teach our children. We want to teach them to say “please”, to put their dirty clothes in the hamper, not to hit, and so much more. If you are like most of us, you’ve found this teaching is not very easy. “It’s simple, just put your clothes in the hamper, not on the floor! Why is it so hard?” Well, there are loads of reasons why it is difficult, but one reason worth discussing is our timing.

We often try to teach children lessons when things are going wrong. We want to teach a child to say please when he just skipped saying please. We remember we want the clothes in the hamper when we see him, infuriatingly, throw them on the floor. Again. And naturally we want to teach him not to hit when he just walloped his brother.

This pattern of teaching “what to do instead” is natural for us. We notice what is wrong, and take steps to correct it. The human eye is keen for seeing what is not right. While this is natural, it doesn’t work very well. At this moment when we are so motivated to teach, the child is not so motivated to learn. And biology is at fault.

So here is the biology. The prefrontal cortex, the newest addition to our evolved brain, is responsible for higher order thinking, logic, judgment, planning, self-control, problem solving, cause and effect thinking, attention, new and higher order learning. The underlying, older part of our brain, the limbic system is an emotionally reactive portion of the brain. It is responsible for survival instincts, self-defense, attack, basic emotions, drives, and nurturance. This lower part of our brain receives information twice as fast as higher areas, meaning the brain’s first opportunity to react is here. The amygdala, our human “panic button”, is a part of the limbic system. When our amygdala becomes active it can diminish the power the prefrontal cortex to control our automatic, more emotional responses. This leaves our limbic system in charge. Keep in mind the limbic system is part of our survival brain, our ancient brain that has been keeping creatures alive for millions of years. But this part of the brain is all about “ME”, and is hugely reactive and sensitive to threat. When in a limbic state of mind, angry, afraid, or stressed, we have a limited ability to take others’ perspective and to use good judgement. The limbic system is powerful and necessary, but it is a base system. When it is in charge our responses are not cooperative, and we are not open to higher level learning. The immature brain of a child, with its underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, is less able to remain logical and cooperative in the best of times. When defensive this ability weakens further.

Now back to parenting. When we sweetly tell a child he is making a mistake, doing it wrong, needs to stop, the child may take this as helpful guidance, or he may take it as being picked on. We all know from experience which interpretation is most likely. If he feels nagged, criticized, or challenged he experiences emotional stress, a form of threat, and becomes defensive. Maybe minorly defensive, irritated and uncomfortable, or maybe majorly defensive, angry and feeling attacked. It doesn’t really matter that you are a loving parent, gently reminding him, for his own good.

When a child is feeling “threat” and experiencing stress, he is not using the thinking prefrontal cortex, but rather the limbic system. The activated limbic system leads him to respond to the threat with an instinctual and automatic, defensive response. In behavioral terms, this could be a response of arguing or screaming, avoiding or withdrawing, defying or lying. At this moment the child is emotional and reactive, not in a thoughtful and learning state.

Of course you know you are no real threat to your child, but the child’s base brain responds instinctively, triggered by the sense of being opposed. He feels provoked. Once we understand this context it is clear that the best learning does not occur through nagging or correction. The most pleasant and most effective learning occurs when we watch a child carefully, and jump all over him when he does something right!

This does not mean you never correct misbehavior. You just correct it mildly, and without really investing energy, because you know it is not really a learning moment. When you see a misbehavior you feel compelled to correct, do it, but be as low key as possible. Try a calmly stating “No hitting”, and if you give a punishment, do so in an unruffled manner. When you are calm, and not lecturing, raising your voice, or threatening, you avoid activating your child’s defensive brain. As a result you are less likely to trigger defiance, tears or a tantrum. Keep in mind, however, that even this style of calm and mild correction, while necessary, is not the moment of most powerful learning; it is not a teachable moment.

When a child feels safe and secure his brain is open to learning. Under these circumstances, when the brain is calm and integrated, the child has access to his higher-order functions such as logic, attentiveness and cooperation. Parents can be instrumental in creating this state of mind, and it’s not complicated to do it. Focus your energy and enthusiasm on the child when things are going well. Applaud and commend him for any accomplishment, even a tiny one. Compliment him for patting the dog gently, for coming to the table when called, for remembering he has homework. And by all means recognize him when problems are not happening. If you have trouble with hitting, make a point of mentioning to the child that you noticed he is not hitting. It may feel silly at first, but it is nourishing to comment “It is dinner time and you haven’t hit all day. You are very kind!” Or “Even though your sister took your toy, you just yelled, you didn’t hit at all!” “I see you put a shirt into the laundry hamper, well done”. Don’t let a day go by without appreciating and pointing out the absence of any behavior you are really dying to get rid of.

Finding and celebrating his successes throughout the day create feelings of pride, achievement, and joy in the child. These are the teachable moments.

For more on a parenting approach that is neurobiologically sound, see Howard Glasser’s work, “The Nurtured Heart Approach®”.

The Heart and Work of Parenting blog is the written by two Psychologists, Drs. Kathy Scherer and Elizabeth Sylvester, who live and work in the heart of family life. They bring their expertise on emotional development, family attachments, neurobiology, and current scientific research to their work. The contents of this blog are sections of a book in progress; we welcome any thoughtful feedback. Website: Heart and Work.

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