To Teach or Not to Teach? A Difficult Decision

Three questions to ask yourself when deciding if your child is too young to understand.

I sat in the midst of a group of moms who oohed and aahed at the sweet little girl just learning to sit up on her own. She made spit bubbles that dripped down onto the plastic dinosaur toy she played with- but mostly just chewed on.

All of the sudden, my two year old tore into the room, on his own make-believe adventure, and realized the little girl was eating his dinosaur! He ran straight for her, yanked the T-rex out of her little fingers and started to run back into the other room.

My long arms caught up to him before he could make it far, and I took the dinosaur back, telling him to ask for a turn. His loud protests joined the little girl’s and then took over. She had a new toy and was already back to playing happily. And my son was throwing a fit.

“He doesn’t understand”

One mom said, “Oh it’s ok. He doesn’t understand.” She wanted me to give the dinosaur right back to him. She even offered him other toys to make him feel better.

I’m sure she meant well, and was just trying to get my son out of trouble. He didn’t hurt anyone after all, so it’s not a big deal. But here’s the thing. Kids need discipline to help them. To teach them.

When she dismissed it, I felt guilty, like maybe I should just let it go and give the dinosaur back. Am I being too harsh, trying to fix this? Is it really something I need to take care of, or should I let it go because he doesn’t understand?

I stood there indecisive.

Then my behavioral brain kicked in, and I remembered to ask these three questions.

1. Is it developmentally possible, physically and emotionally?

Answering this first question tells you if your kids are actually too young to learn what it is you want to teach. Is it possible to teach a 1 year old to tie his shoes? Nope, too young. Can you teach your four year old to slip his shoes on by himself? He has the motor skills for that, so sure!

We can’t forget about the emotional part. We wouldn’t expect a two year old to give up crying forever. Just not possible, and not healthy! But you can teach them not to scream at you when they’re upset.

I decided that it is possible for my son to refrain from grabbing toys from other kids whenever he feels like it. It’s developmentally possible for him to wait a minute or two until I can offer the baby another toy so she drops the dino.

2. What are the pros and cons?

Once you decide it’s possible, you decide whether or not you’re going to teach it. The first part of this is looking at the pros and cons.

First, the pros. The skill you are teaching should serve a purpose. Why do you want to teach this? What is it going to solve, or how will it help?

For example, teaching kids to wait their turn cuts down on bullying. But the pros might not always be quite that obvious. It might not make things easier right away.

As an example, if you teach a kid to ask instead of demand a drink, it doesn’t really make things easier for you or for him. But it does teach him skills that he’ll need later on.

After the pros, check out the cons. Basically, you need to look at how difficult it will be to learn this skill. Will it be a quick fix or a long term project? Is it going to add tension in your relationship?

If I’m going to teach my son to wait for toys, the pros are that he won’t be bullying other kids. If he learns to ask nicely for a turn, we’ll avoid fights, and it will make playtime go a lot smoother. He might even make more friends!

But there are cons too. When I don’t let him grab, he’s going to be upset, and I’m sure he’s going to cry, even if just for a minute or two.

3. Is it worth it?

After you lay out all the pros and cons, you have to decide if it’s worth it. Even if it’s something your child needs to know eventually, now is not always the right time. Are you working on a zillion other things? How is your relationship at the moment, strong enough to handle the tension?

Even though I realized my son would scream for a minute, the pros outweighed the cons for us. I couldn’t just let him rip toys out of babies’ hands when he was capable of more. He needed to learn to be gentle and to ask nicely. Our relationship was strong and could handle a few small fits.

Executive Mom Decision: To Teach!

So, instead of letting “He doesn’t understand” scare me into doing nothing, I reminded myself that I needed to do what was best for my son. He didn’t understand, so I had to teach him.

I looked at my son and asked gently, “Would you like a turn with the dinosaur?” He nodded his head through his tears. “Then you need to ask nicely.” I took deep breaths with him and he gave a few last little cries then calmed right down.

“Turn please?” he asked me with such a sweet smile, tears still perched on his cheeks.

“Absolutely!” I replied, handing him his dinosaur. He laughed and jumped into the air a few times, smiling at me again and shouting “Thank you!” while running off to play.

I used this incident to help teach my son about asking nicely and taking turns. We need to use these situations to teach our kids in the moment. We don’t use discipline to make our kids miserable or to be harsh, we use it to teach them.

Yes, “They don’t understand.” But it’s our job to teach them.

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