So how are rules and values to be taught? It can be hard sometimes to be a good teacher, but there are some guidelines that can help you approach instructional discipline in a way that will make it work.
Parents as Models
As the parents, you are the family leaders. Your actions do, in fact, speak louder than your words. If you keep complaining to your child about his or her complaining, you are sending a confusing message. If you leave your belongings scattered around the home for someone else to pick up but demand that your children pick up after themselves, you are sending a contradictory double message.
Yelling at your children to stop yelling sends a self-defeating message. If you hit your children to stop them from hitting each other, you are sending a destructive message. In each case, you are modeling behavior you don't want your child to learn.
More than what you say, giving your children an example to follow is important. If you want your children to learn patience, exhibit patience. If you want your children to listen to you, listen to them. If you want your children to control their tempers, then control your own. If you truly value patience, listening, and temper control, then promote your values with your actions. Be willing to model what you want your child to learn.
But suppose you have a bad habit that you don't want your children to learn. Suppose, no matter how hard you try, you are usually late in keeping your appointments with family and friends, and now one of your children is starting a habit of keeping other people waiting. Is there no hope for helping your child to learn to be on time?
Yes, there is hope, because every parent gives two models for the children to learn from, not just one. Each parent models both how to be and how not to be. For example, you can probably think of ways you wanted to be similar to your parents and ways that you also wanted to be different.
One of the things you may have liked about your parents was their self-sufficiency, and you have worked to be independent yourself. But one thing you didn't like was that they never asked you for assistance. As a child, this omission caused you to feel that you had no help worth offering.
Not wanting to parent in the same way, you find yourself asking your children to assist you in ways you yourself were never asked. “My children know they have something they can contribute because I am always asking them for help.”
Thus, when you see your child developing a bad habit you are struggling to break yourself of, you can offer yourself as a negative model. “This is a case of asking you to do what I say, not what I do. You know how I always keep everyone waiting and how irritating to other people that is? I think I do it because the closer I get to an appointment, the more I want to see if I can't get one more thing done before I go. So I end up being late and sometimes making other people who have waited for me late as well. I am trying to change this habit. I hope you can learn not to follow my bad example.”
By honestly acknowledging your shortcomings and striving to correct them, you can use your mistakes to teach your children how not to be. But to do this, you must be able to let your children know that you are not perfect, giving them permission not to be perfect either.
Adults often forget how hard it was to learn the basics. An example of this instructional amnesia is the parent helping her young son memorize his home street address and phone number. The child seemed to know them yesterday but has forgotten them today.
Irritated by the child's lapse in remembering information that is second nature to her, the mother explodes in frustration. “This is important! You aren't paying attention! What's the matter with you? You're not trying! Stop acting so stupid!”
The problem is not that her son isn't trying, it's that his mother has forgotten what it was like to first learn this kind of information many years ago. Knowledge has obliterated memory of ignorance.
Like most adults, once she knows something, it seems easy to learn. It is this instructional amnesia that causes her to be insensitive now, to become impatient, to express frustration by calling her child “stupid” — each of these behaviors making it more stressful for the child to learn. Instead, she should be using the difficulty her child has learning “something simple” to remind herself of how difficult childhood learning can be.
Remember what it was first like for you as an adult to learn how to use a computer? All the mistakes you made? How stupid you felt compared to your more technologically comfortable children? Well, that's how your child feels a lot of the time in comparison to you.
Learning by Repeating
Parents often believe children should learn something the first time it is taught, when this is usually not a realistic expectation. In most cases, children, like adults, are multiple trial learners. Not only do children often not learn something new at once, but having gotten it right before, they may get it wrong again.
Learning really has two parts, not one. First, the child has to learn the skill or understanding, then the child has to learn to remember what he's learned. “I know the answer, I just forgot!” is a common and honest explanation.
Reminding and reteaching are part of the parent's instructional role. Also important is getting to know the kind of instructional approach that works best with your child. Notice which approach to following directions works best for your child.
Some children learn directions best from being shown the steps or from seeing a description in written words. Some children learn directions best from being told and hearing it explained out loud. And some children learn directions best from hands-on activity, having some physical involvement to help them understand.
Many elementary teachers use all three approaches to get information across. They put a homework assignment on the chalkboard for children to see, they read the assignment out loud for students to hear, and they ask students to write down the assignment in their notebooks to give students something to do.
Because it takes repetition to learn, it takes repetition to teach. It takes a child being willing to practice, the parent being willing to be persistent, and both of them being willing to be patient with however long learning takes. Impatience only impedes education.
Learning as a Risk
A parent's power of instruction depends a lot on sensitivity to the risks of learning their child must be willing to take in order to understand and master anything new. Consider five common risks.
Your child must be willing to declare ignorance, to admit, “I do not know.”
Your child must be willing to make mistakes, to do things wrong before getting them right, to admit, “I messed up!”
Your child must be willing to sometimes feel stupid, to have a hard time understanding, to admit, “I'm just not catching on!”
Your child must be willing to look foolish, to have others witness his or her fumbling efforts to learn, to admit, “I must seem dumb to anyone who sees me struggle so.”
Your child must be willing to evaluate him- or herself or to be evaluated by others, to have his or her performance judged, to admit, “My efforts show how well or how badly I can do.”
You can choose to respond to these risks in a way that discourages effort, or you can work to reduce them and encourage your child to learn.
If you want to discourage learning, you can put down ignorance: “You should know this already!” You can act irritated with mistakes: “Stop messing up!” You can despair at slowness to catch on: “You'll never learn!” You can embarrass foolishness: “You should be ashamed at being so slow!” And you can give a critical evaluation: “You did it wrong again!”
To keep your family environment safe for learning, don't let older children put down younger children's efforts to learn. Remain patient when your child makes mistakes. Treat problems not as sources of frustration, but as opportunities from which to learn.
However, if you want to support learning, you can give ignorance permission: “Learning begins with admitting that you don't know.” You can treat mistakes as sources of instruction: “You will learn from your errors.” You can be sensitive to feelings of stupidity: “It can be discouraging trying to learn something new.” You can admire the willingness to look foolish: “You're brave to let others see you try.” And you can give a positive evaluation: “You know more than you did before.” Because learning is risky, parents must encourage their child to learn.