A woman holding her baby in the back of a car.

They’ll Only Learn if You’ll Teach

From Chapter Two of What They Won’t Tell You About Parenting

Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.

-Winston Churchill

Well, I got you all fired up to be a leader, and now there’s this: you see, you’re a teacher too. By now you know parents wear many hats. Calm down; I’m only going to focus on two. They’re the top hats of the trade. The reason I’m articulating this is the more you think of yourself as a leader and a teacher, the better the parent you’ll be. It’s really that simple. But again, you have to embrace it. You have to be conscious of it and grab it by the horns. Why else would anyone want to follow your lead or accept your guidance? The same confidence and enthusiasm that will make you a great leader are going to make you a supreme teacher.

OK, so before we discuss the subject matter, let’s look closer at what makes a good teacher, shall we? Much as with the leadership qualities we discussed earlier, you know damn well what makes a good teacher. You’ve had good ones in your life, and you’ve had lousy ones. The lousy ones may very well have been confident, but they were certainly not enthusiastic about helping you. They were just going through the motions hoping the day would end. You don’t want to be like them. Now think of the best teachers you’ve had. I guarantee you’re thinking of someone who you felt understood you, cared about you, and encouraged you. Those are real good verbs to keep in mind. Much more on encouragement and understanding later…

We were looking closer at what makes a good teacher. Daniel Coyle, journalist and New York Times best-selling author of The Talent Code, has travelled the globe studying the methods of training, motivation, and coaching that have produced the world’s greatest talent hotbeds. I’d think he might know a thing or two about what makes a good teacher. In fact, he lays it out on page 162:

The teachers and coaches I met were quiet, even reserved. They were mostly older; many had been teaching for thirty or forty years. They possessed the same sort of gaze: steady, deep, unblinking. They listened far more than they talked. They seemed allergic to giving pep talks or inspiring speeches; they spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments. They had an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customizing each message to each student’s personality. (Coyle, 2009, 162)

Listened far more than they talked? Extraordinary sensitivity? Who would want to follow that? Um, you would. Who else, you ask? Your child. Moving forward, please think of yourself as an enthusiastic, confident leader and a calm, consistent teacher one who listens far more than he or she talks. You can manage the enthusiastic/calm, confident/warm balance just fine. Keep those words in mind. Find that sweet spot. Keep calm and read on.

So now we know (we already knew) what makes a good teacher. But I remind you that in my own master’s program in education, before I was granted the privilege of working in the classrooms with young children, I was instructed in how their brains develop and how they learn. Kind of makes sense, no? Don’t worry. I won’t bore you with extensive details on child development. But it behooves you as a calm, consistent teacher to consider both what’s going on in our little ones’ brains and how children learn.

Again, I’m not going to go crazy here detailing the growth happening inside your child’s brain in his or her early life. Let’s just say it’s insane in the membrane. Also let me be transparent about the fact that I have a clear ulterior motive here. A major theme of this book is that you need to meet your child’s behavior with some sense of understanding and empathy. It will help you be a calm, consistent teacher and will help you gain your child’s cooperation. It is my hope here that a few mind-blowing statistics will convince you that your kids have a lot going on upstairs. You should genuinely feel for them and support them.

I know we all have a lot of stress in our lives, but how do you think you’d manage your day if you had billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of synapses between these cells forming, all while you attempt to handle emotions you are experiencing for the first time? Might you be a tad overwhelmed? What’s more, bear in mind that the emotional part of our brains develops before the logical, thinking part of our brains. If your brain size doubled (from year one to two) or was 90 percent of an adult’s size (by year six), might you throw a tantrum or two? Yeah, I’d say your little ones could use some understanding and support from their beloved first teacher.

The take-home here is if you can manage to meet your children’s natural and inevitable emotional challenges with acceptance and understanding, you will be better prepared to support and teach them how to manage their emotions and navigate life’s bumps and bruises. They, in turn, will sense that you “get them” and will be more willing to listen to you and accept your help. That goes for toddlers, tweens, and teens (husbands and wives too, but that’s for another book). Young children are going to get overwhelmed and have tantrums. You might have heard the phrase raging hormones in reference to a teenager’s behavior too. Well, it’s true. Don’t think elementary-aged kids have it easy either. They’re just finding their own way when they are thrust into large groups of children and expected to sit, listen, and interact respectfully. Children of any age need calm, confident, consistent teachers who understand and encourage them and teach them these skills patiently. That’s you, kid.

Draw the line when your child is disrespectful to you or others (no matter his or her age) but allow and even encourage appropriate emotional expression. What’s appropriate you ask? You know the answer, but I’m happy to simplify and clarify: inappropriate behavior is any kind that is disrespectful, unsafe, or unhealthy. Overly dramatic behavior can sometimes feel like all three to an observing adult. Time to lead by offering clear limits and support. Time to teach.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.


Let’s move on to how young children learn. I’ll focus on young children and assume most of my readers have younguns. If you have a teen, fret not. It all applies. Anyone with a teen knows adolescents often act just like toddlers, and again, the principles I am discussing have to do with simple human nature.

Much of what we know about early childhood development and how young children learn can be credited to the work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Why not apply his sixty years of studying child development toward your own parenting strategies? Couldn’t hurt. Let’s begin with his conclusion that young children are active learners. They learn from doing and testing. His work led him to believe they were constantly conducting experiments. They are. On you. When you get dramatic about him bouncing a ball in the house, that’s good stuff. Let’s watch mommy and daddy freak out.

Piaget also discovered that children learn through repeated experiences. You’ve discovered that too. He found it fascinating. You find it annoying. Follow me here: if someone found you fascinating, wouldn’t you want to continue to fascinate them? Wouldn’t you be more willing to listen to them? Now, if someone found you annoying your intrinsic desires to learn and explore wouldn’t you be somewhat annoyed yourself and naturally inclined to challenge that person? We make it harder than it has to be. Meet your child’s desire to learn through repeated experiences with acceptance and understanding and watch how your child will be more willing to accept and understand when you inevitably have to teach him or her there are limits in a civilized society. Deliver the messages with the same extraordinary sensitivity as the best teachers in the world. Listen far more than you talk. Accept and understand.

Two more important Piaget takeaways, and we’ll be done with our child development course (hallelujah): children learn by making mistakes, and children learn by modeling. It’s how you learned, wise guy. At the risk of being crude, I again ask you to follow me here: since you are your child’s first and foremost teacher her role-model, if you will if you treated every one of her inevitable mistakes as an opportunity for learning, wouldn’t your child learn to do the same through your example? Wouldn’t that build trust between you two, strengthen your relationship, and again, make your child more willing to listen? How might you feel if your first teacher met your mistakes with empathy and understanding and helped you learn from them? Would you want to please that teacher or challenge him or her? Now, ask yourself how you would feel if you were learning a new language, and every time you made a mistake, you were punished. How might your feelings influence your future behavior?

You’re a leader and a teacher. It’s an incredible amount of responsibility and pressure. But it only makes sense to acknowledge it and if you want to be effective embrace it enthusiastically. Much like most parenting, this is all about a mentality and approach. The more you think of yourself as a teacher supporting and encouraging your child, narrating lessons in the hope of future improve- the more you establish you are on your child’s side and the more willing he or she will be to follow your lead and accept your input.

I can’t overemphasize how much our attitudes affect our abilities to lead and parent. Your attitude influences your reactions. Your reactions will influence your child’s behavior. Meet your child’s natural desire to test with acceptance and patient guidance. Go from thinking your child is annoying to your child is learning, from your child is being a brat to your child is experimenting. You want your children to be curious and motivated. Through your child’s mistakes, teach and lead the way to future successes. Think: less punishing equals more teaching.

Counterintuitively, this equates to less lecturing, more listening. Don’t go thinking that the act of listening more will make you a pushover. Your goal is to develop a trusting, supportive relationship to encourage your children to express themselves but respect and heed your guidance. The more you listen, the more you accomplish all those goals. Is your child upset at you for setting a limit? Welcome to parenting and welcome your child to something we call disappointment. Go ahead and ask him to tell you how he feels. Then meet it with confident empathy and support. Something to the effect of: I get that but there’s a reason so let’s allow emotions and move on. As long as you’re genuine in your understanding and you should be your child is just learning the ropes, he will eventually see you are in his corner. [Spoken in Yoda voice] Important patience is in teachable moments.

Not buying it, tough guy? Perhaps you’d be more convinced of the power of listening if we brought in hostage negotiator Chris Voss. What better analogy to parenting? You’ve felt like a hostage countless times, so let’s see what applies. In an interview published in The Atlantic titled Ask a Hostage Negotiator: What’s the Best Way to Get a Raise?, Voss explains that most people trying to push very hard to get something mistakenly think they have to be tough. In reality, Voss explains, the nicer you are, the harder you can push. It turns out there’s some data out there that says that people are six times more likely to get what they want if they’re likable (Lam 2015).

You want your child to listen? Be likable. You want to be likable? Listen more. As Voss asserts: empathy is critical to negotiations. More on the power of empathy to come. For now, congratulations, for I, parent educator Tom Limbert, do hereby dub thee a pleasant and likable teacher. May your confidence and enthusiasm become a shining example to the people of the empire.

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