Thursday, February 24, 2011

Training vs. teaching

When you get a pet, you can train that pet to do things you want him to do. But the animal generally already knows how to do them -- the training is to get them to do them when you want them to. For instance, my cat knows how to go to the bathroom when and where she wants. Her mother taught her that. She had to be trained to use the litterbox.

Children may be "trained" to do a few things. But for many things, they actually need to be taught. They don't already know how.

I mean, you can't train a child to read by leaving him alone with a book until he is able to tell you what the it said. And you can't train an adult to speak Spanish by smacking him every time he speaks English. Some things need to be taught.

Here's an example: sleep. I tend to hear people say, "It was time to teach my baby to sleep, so I let her cry for an hour until she fell asleep." That's not teaching -- that's training. Eventually, under enough stress, the baby may learn how to do what you're asking -- but he wouldn't be crying like that if he really knew how to do it already. A baby who can't fall asleep on his own usually doesn't know how to relax and compose himself for sleep. You can let him wear himself out till he is so overtired he'll fall asleep no matter what. But you haven't taught him to sleep.

I am teaching my son to sleep on his own by introducing it to him gradually. He knows how to fall asleep while nursing, because that's easy. I'm trying to move slowly from falling asleep while nursing in the rocking chair to falling asleep while nursing in his bed, to falling asleep right after finishing nursing, till he begins to associate sleep with his bed rather than nursing. It's a long, slow, patience-requiring process, and when he gets sick or cuts a tooth, things move backwards. I'm okay with that. He is slowly learning to sleep on his own, and I trust that in time he'll get it. It just seems more gentle to me than throwing him in at the deep end and making him work it out himself.

I recently had a conversation about children and their emotions. Most children don't know how to manage their emotions. They throw fits about the tiniest things; they cry when they're tired; they hit when they're wound up. But you can't blame them for this -- they don't know how to do it differently. That doesn't mean you should just let them do it, because they do need to learn. But punishing them for emotional outbursts seems unfair, too. They have to learn how to work with their emotions, something that can take years and years to figure out. I think most of us are still working on this ourselves!

Spanking a child when he throws a temper tantrum or yelling at him when he cries just strikes me as unfair. He doesn't know how not to do these things. He's got really big feelings that just overwhelm him. I remember very well how that felt. (It wasn't really very long ago at all!) You just feel out of control, and you can't seem to act the way you're supposed to. And if an adult comes along and punishes you for it, it feels like double jeopardy. The feelings are hurting you and now the grownups are hurting you, too.

On the other hand, we do our kids a disservice if we never teach them how not to scream, shout, flail, and hit when they're upset. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert at this; I'm still figuring out what I think the ideal approach is. I have a few ideas, though.

1. Modeling. There is no better way to teach anything than by modeling. Does the child ever see you upset? How does he see you react? Do you shout, throw things, stomp? Or do you shut down and refuse to talk about it? How would you like him to react when he's angry? Model that instead.

For example, the toddler accidentally dumps a container of flour on the floor, making a huge mess. You lose your cool, shouting, "How could you do that?!" But then you remember you're trying to teach him something, so you say, in a slightly quieter voice, "I'm so mad because now I will have to clean up the mess!" And then, maybe a bit quieter, "I know it's not your fault, though, and I'm not mad at you." And then, in a normal voice, "What will make me feel better is to clean up this mess." This is just an example (it's what my mom usually did, naturally, and it was a good model for me), but it's a good one, if this is how you would like your child to react when he is angry. Your model should include actually having and showing those negative emotions, though, because it's unreasonable to expect a child never to show negative feelings.

2. Avoid triggers. Every kid has them -- things that mess with his emotions and make him a basket case. Lack of sleep, too much sweets, too much excitement, too little attention -- if you know what gets a child upset, try to avoid those things. And then, when you can't avoid it and he melts down, try to understand. Sometimes I get so annoyed at how whiny and clingy the baby's been lately. But then I realize he's still feeling a little sick, and it makes me feel more patient.

3. Calm him down. If you know what calms your child down, do it. This might take some trial and error. Some kids want to be held during a tantrum (even I do, and I'm 24) and some don't. Some just need to be left alone for a little bit (you may need to remove him from the scene, or leave him where he is but call the other kids into another room). Yes, if ignoring the tantrum helps the child calm down faster, do that! But don't shun them if they turn to you for help.

Sometimes a change of scene or topic can help. Yes, it's distraction, but that's not a bad thing. I distract myself from bad moods all the time. So long as it's not bribery -- offering candy in the middle of a meltdown, for instance. That one's probably not going to teach what you want the child to learn!

As a child gets older, you can talk through the feelings: "Why are you so mad? Gee, that is frustrating! What could you do to solve that problem? Do you want to sit with a book for awhile until you feel better?"

4. Set limits. What I've said so far makes it sound like anything goes. It doesn't. There are things you don't have to put up with. That's the way to teach that it's okay to have the bad feelings, but it's not okay to take them out on others. So, you could decide that it's okay for your four-year-old to fling herself on her bed, kick her feet, and wail, but it's not okay for her to push her little brother on the way there. And it's okay to discipline for these things, but you should be clear about what action you're punishing: "I know you feel bad, but since you are hitting Joey, you will have to be in your room for now." And for an older child, reminding them that others are hurt by their words and actions is very important. A sensitive, emotional child may be motivated very well by the desire not to hurt others.

All of this depends on age. At 10 months, Marko sometimes flails around wildly when he's upset. He might smack someone in the face by accident or pull their hair. But it's not deliberate; he's just out of control. So sometimes I put him down so that I don't get hurt, but I don't punish him. When he's older, I'll expect more. I think it's okay for a three-year-old to wail loudly when he's upset, but not a ten-year-old. It all depends on the child -- you can train him to do what you know he's capable of, but if he isn't capable of doing something, you have to take the patient way and teach him.

I know this probably sounds very presumptuous of me, talking about all this when I only have a baby. It's drawn from my experience as a nanny, but mostly from my memories as a very emotional child. I know I am no expert. These are just a few ideas knocking around in my head of what I would like to do. I'm sure sometimes I will just drag a screaming child out of the store without following any of my own steps. But this is an ideal.

Anyone who's been through it have anything to add?


Sarah Faith said...

Good thoughts. I'd say you're on the right track when you say how you need to let the kid *see* how you are calming yourself/handling the feelings. If you just have perfect self control all the time they will not actually know you're doing it, they'll think you're just emotionless. To stop and say, "I'm taking a deep breath now so I don't say something I'll regret," etc is going to do more good than just not yelling.

Where it's a bit more fuzzy, for me, is in the area where I'm still not perfect, or even good, at modeling certain behaviors, but still need to require it of my kids for their own good and my sanity. In this situation I have found coercive methods help in the short term as long as there is an overarching "Let's work on this fault together" and maintaining the relationship.
You'll figure it out as you go. There's no harm developing a philosophy for yourself when you 'only have a baby' - just as long as we try not to use our preconceived ideas to harshly judge others or cling to techniques that are not working in one or another stage of child development.
Have you read the Popcaks' book on parenting?

Sheila said...

No, I haven't, is it any good?

Of course all of this is an ideal -- I know I will not be a perfect model for my kids, nor will I have the patience to let them work through their emotions in their own time, every time. But it's a goal.

Emily B said...

Since this is an old post, you may have already picked up the Popcak's parenting book, Parenting with Grace. But, on the off-chance you have not, I would highly recommend it!

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