Teachable Moments

By Chris Thurber
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Feverpitched

Children can sometimes be annoying. With that bold truism on the table, here is a logical question for Camp Business readers: What can be done about that? To punish or reprimand comes rather too naturally, as was evident during my recent trip to an amusement park. To teach is better—indeed to teach is the true meaning of disciplining . And although it’s not always easy, both the parent and the annoying child in question will feel better in the end.

While at the park, I witnessed a lot of verbal combat. Kids complained just about everything: the heat, the food, the rides, tired legs, the waiting, and their parents’ unwillingness to buy things in the gift shops. Plenty of kids were having a great time, but those who struggled were demonstrative. Somewhere in that last word lies a more colorful characterization.

I noticed that parents were also losing it. There were threats to go home, impose time-outs, or withhold privileges, often attended by angry looks, stern voices, yanks of the arm, and occasional smacks on the rear. And of course there was the litany of useless rhetorical questions grown-ups are prone to ask in such circumstances: “How many times do I have to tell you?” “What did I just say?” “Do you want to leave right now?” and “Do you want a spanking?”

Readers who are not parents might be reminded that a trip to a major theme park involves planning, sometimes taking time off of work, travel expenses, and pricey admission tickets. A family of four might easily spend $3,000 before even walking through the gates. Then there’s the emotional investment. We want our kids not simply to like this wonderful surprise, but to love it, to have the best day of their lives and worship us forever because of it. Well, almost.

Guiding Good Behavior
So what does one get when crossing large investments of time, money, and emotion with fatigue, heat, and whining? Let’s just say it ain’t pretty. Otherwise high-functioning families become, well, low-functioning. And although most of the families I saw appeared to be having a great time, there is something to be learned from those who were not.

First, I admire any parent or youth leader with the fortitude to accompany one or more children on a trip anywhere. Even the parents who were obviously frustrated at the park generally evidenced patience, restraint, and perseverance. Kudos.

Second, and here’s the take-home point for this “Staff Advancement” column: Many parents are good at turning trying moments into teaching moments. Witness my brother’s daughter who held out the last bit of her chocolate ice-cream cone and lovingly intoned, “Daddy, do you want it?” Then, as my brother bent down to eat it, she popped it into her mouth.

My brother had a tough, split-second choice to make in that moment: Was this an endearing practical joke, a nasty trick, or an opportunity? He has a good sense of humor, so he chose a different response than that of other parents I had witnessed that day at the park. He paused, smiled, and simply said, “Isabel.” Although she knew she wasn’t in real trouble, she also understood the prompt. “Sorry, Daddy,” she said with a smile.

“It’s OK,” he said, then added, “I just wonder how you might have felt if Mommy or I had done that to you. Or what if your sister Alicia had tricked you like that?” Isabel was still smiling, but in a guilty way. “I would have been mad. But you or Mommy wouldn’t have done that. Only Alicia is that mean.” My brother just raised his eyebrows because, of course, she’d just had the insight he was guiding her toward.

And so it goes in every family, camp, and classroom around the world. The grown-ups in charge are challenged to provide the type of measured guidance that helps youngsters grow into a new generation of responsible grown-ups. When it works, it’s elegant. And when it doesn’t, it’s clumsy, nasty, and sometimes abusive.

The next time you bristle at a child’s annoying behavior, take the long view. Misbehavior is evidence of a skills deficit, not malice. You won’t always be patient and clear-headed, but the more you are, the easier it is to teach, to discipline. And the results are their own reward. Of course, an ice-cream cone now and then is also fairly rewarding.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit CampSpirit.com.