For parents, it can be exasperating when children do things they know they’re not supposed to do. It’s tempting to lecture them. We want to share our wisdom. We hope our kids will have an “Aha!” moment, see the error of their ways, and never make that mistake again. Maybe if we explain it long enough and thoroughly enough, our point will sink in!
What’s wrong with lecturing?
The problem is that lectures don’t work. Educational researchers have known for years that students learn better from active engagement with a topic than from lectures. Similarly, research on parenting shows that lecturing, nagging, scolding, and talking at children or teens don’t inspire cooperation. It never feels good to hear—especially at length—how displeased someone is with us and the many ways we fall short of expectations. When lectures are long and frequent, kids are likely to respond by feeling defensive or resentful, and they just stop listening.
Lectures leave kids stuck feeling “bad.” As parents, we need to be on the side of helping our children grow and learn.
What to do instead of lecturing your child
By asking good questions, we can help them think through difficult situations, so they can move forward in positive ways. Avoid accusatory questions along the lines of “Why did you do that?” “What were you thinking?” or “What’s wrong with you?” Kids don’t have good answers to these.
Instead of asking backward-looking questions that rehash past sins, focus on forward-looking questions that encourage good choices now or next time. Here are ten possibilities:
What is your job right now?
What do you need to do to be ready for ____?
What’s your plan for getting that done?
How will you remember to ___?
What can you do to help her feel better?
How can you make amends (or show him you’re sorry)?
What can we do to prevent this from happening again?
What would you like to do differently next time?
What is the kind thing to do now (or from now on)?
How can I help?
Don’t go through the whole list; that would feel like an overwhelming interrogation. The point is that by asking, rather than lecturing, we help kids think. We also show our faith in our children’s ability to move forward in a good direction. We won’t always be around to tell our kids what to do, but through gentle questions, we can help guide them so they learn to think things through on their own.
Levy, S. A., Westin, A. M., Reamy, A. M., Reyner, J. C., Syed, T., & Diamond, G. S. (2010). Communication about smoking between depressed adolescents and their parents. Nicotine & tobacco research, 12(3), 191-197.
National Research Council (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.