By: Joe Newman
One afternoon, I was watching a first-grader named Jimmy playing Legos with two other boys when I heard him say to his friend Ryan, “That’s a stupid way to build it. The wings are gonna fall off. Give me the ship. You’re stupid!”
Ryan looked hurt, put the half-built spaceship down, crossed his arms and turned his back to Jimmy.
Jimmy was very impulsive and often said the first thing that popped into his mind without thinking. He was trying his best to make friends but most of the children still didn’t like him very much. He and Ryan had become friends about two months earlier and had even had a few play dates together after school.
I winced when I heard him call Ryan stupid, not only because he clearly hurt Ryan’s feelings, but also because I was afraid he might lose one of his precious few friends. So I called Jimmy over and said to him, “Jimmy, let me ask you a question. Do you want to have more friends?”
Jimmy looked at me suspiciously and gave a tentative “Yes.”
“Okay, and are you happy about how many play dates you have or do you want to have more?”
“I want to have more.” Jimmy said.
“So right now, after what you just said to him, do you think Ryan wants to be your friend?”
“But Ryan was being stupid. If you put the wings on like that they’ll never stay. You need to ….”
I broke in and said, “Hold on, hold on. I didn’t ask you if Ryan was being stupid, maybe he was. I’m just asking you if you think he wants to be your friend when you call him stupid.”
“I don’t know. Probably not,” he said.
“Well I just wanted to ask you because I know you want to have more friends and play dates, so I couldn’t figure out why you called Ryan stupid.”
Then after a pause I said, “Do you want to go back and play?”
“Yeah.” Jimmy said.
“Go on then.”
Jimmy had always been resistant to anyone telling him that something he did was wrong or a bad idea. I’d learned that if I asked him questions, and didn’t force him to admit he was wrong, he was more likely to talk with me honestly and change his behavior.
Guidance Without Manipulation
There are all kinds of subtle manipulations in the language we use when we talk with children. This new generation of children, children with more highly developed communication skills and a stronger sense of themselves, are highly sensitive to manipulation and they will resist it. The use of manipulation is an attempt to shape and change them based in a fear that the child will not come to the correct conclusions on their own. The child’s resistance will start an antagonistic and oppositional dynamic. The most effective way to speak to these children is to speak to them in terms that acknowledge their independent will.
Recognize that children ultimately make the decisions in each circumstance and that we cannot make decisions for them. Also, the language that we use with children should communicate to them a belief that they are capable of making logical, healthy decisions that are respectful of themselves and others. The language commonly used to speak with children is filled with manipulation, moralizing, and innuendo about what they should and shouldn’t do. This kind of language communicates to them our lack of faith in both their ability to make decisions, and in their capacity as moral and ethical persons.
Learning or Realization?
There are two different ways to teach a child –through a process of learning or a process of realization. When trying to teach a child after a moment of conflict or difficulty it is much more effective to use a process of realization.
Learning happens when you take information, or the conclusion about something, from someone else. The adult gives the information or conclusion and the child takes it.
Realization happens when you gather your own information and come to the conclusion on your own. The adult can lead a child to realizations by asking questions rather than giving answers.
Using a series of questions to lead someone to certain realizations is commonly called the Socratic method. Wikipedia defines Socratic method as “a form of philosophical inquiry in which the questioner explores the implications of others’ positions, to stimulate rational thinking and illuminate ideas.”
Did That Work for You?
The key to having a Socratic dialogue with children is to base your discussion around asking them, in as many ways as possible, “Did the choices you made get you what you wanted?”
When you lead a child to examine the facts and ideas based on better understanding of what’s in her own self-interest, rather than telling her your conclusions about what she should and shouldn’t do, she will more easily embrace the realizations and conclusions she’s come to because she feels respected and not manipulated.
Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com..
[Photo Credit: ianus]