From a very early age, right through their development, children have to learn certain behaviours. It may be for their own safety and well-being or for the safety of others; it may be in terms of how they respect and behave in relation to other people; it may be with regard to the rules of society.
Children have to learn to behave properly and to understand the difference between what is right and what is wrong; what they can do and what they cannot do.
Over the last few decades the manner by which these learnings have tended to occur has changed.
Previously, children were generally told what to do – this is the behaviour that is expected of you and this is how you will behave. Parents would shout at their children; threats would be issued if the desired behaviour did not occur and there would be an array of sanctions and chastisements used.
However, more recently, there has been a shift in the way parents seek to control their children. Many parents now seek to reason with their children rather than to order them to behave in a certain way. Discipline and good behaviour are now seen as something that should be taught rather than as something that needs to be prescribed. Children should see the wisdom of “proper behaviour” for themselves rather than to have it simply imposed upon them.
Using such an approach, parents will try to treat a child as if that child is equal to themselves, as if the child is a mini-adult. They will reason with them; they will try to be logical with them; they will try to talk through issues; they will try to arrive at mutually agreeable compromises.
This is because learning through reason is considered a preferable learning process. Not only can it be more effective but parents recognise that training children in the use of reason stands children in good stead – they are sure to benefit by seeing it in action; by learning how it works; by practicing it themselves.
It will also quite often be left up to the child – through their adoptive behaviours – to determine the extent to which reason prevails. The more a child listens to reason the more reasoned a parent will tend to be.
Even when parents want to issue some sort of command to their child, it seems that they now adopt a more respectful, politer tone. There is a subtlety to how parental authority has changed. Previously, when addressing their child, a parent would instruct them:
“Put your shoes on.”
That has changed to something more like:
“Can you put your shoes on please?”
It’s a request for action rather than a command. It is a much softer tone, much more indirect.
But does this focus on reasoning work? Is it as effective? Does it secure a child’s proper behaviour? Could it be the reason why parents are – according to some – losing control of their children?
The potential issue with this method of learning is two-fold:
Firstly, regarding the quality of the resources used – any output is only as good as the input made. And in these circumstances, so much of a child’s understanding is dependent on the parent. Is that parent able to understand what and how a child thinks and then are they able to reason with that child in language and logic that the child will understand?
It is certainly a more complicated thought process for a child to understand a reasoned argument rather than a straightforward instruction. It means that the quality and effectiveness of the child’s new learning experience will be dependent on the parent’s communication skills and reasoning ability.
With regard to communication, some parents are just not very good at expressing themselves. They may struggle with language or with complicated thoughts and sentences.
And of course, a parent’s reasoning and logic may itself be flawed. Parents are not always right. Their reasons for doing and saying things do not always make sense. Inevitably, it makes a child’s understanding less certain if a parent’s reasoning is poorly structured and ordered.
Perhaps it is for this reason that we can expect a child’s reasoning ability to only be as good as its parents’!
The second issue with this style of learning is in relation to poor timing. Parents do not always teach children what they need to know when they need to know it. Reasoned lessons can be ill-timed.
Lessons will only be learnt when a child is able and ready to learn a lesson. This is because a child has to have the mental and emotional understanding to be able to absorb a particular learning. All too often parents will get ahead of themselves. They will try to teach a child about something that the child is simply not ready for.
One of the great skills to being a good parent is to know when a child is ready for a particular learning. If the child is too young the lesson goes over their head and is wasted; too old and the parent might be considered to have been holding the child back.
The closer the relationship between parent and child, the better the parent will be at recognising when a child is ready for a particular learning and how that lesson should be most effectively delivered.
Sometimes you will hear a parent try to reason with their child by using language and explanations that are clearly way above the child’s head. This discordant discussion is particularly noticeable when people who do not have a great deal of contact with a child – grandparents, distant parents – try to reason with them. These people will pitch their points either well above or well below the child’s mental and emotional position. It can then be torturous to watch a child try to make sense of it.
Many parental lessons are also often delivered when driven by events. In such circumstances they do not necessarily make for the best and calmest of learnings.
For example, a young boy skips along the pavement but accidentally steps into the road. A car has to swerve to avoid him. The boy’s parent, seeing what might have happened if the car driver had not been alert, will not be in the best state of mind to deliver a reasoned lesson on road safety.
Reasoning with children falters not only because of these factors but also because not all children have the cognitive skills, emotional intelligence and understanding ability to engage in rational discussion. Sometimes they cannot be expected to understand and accept sophisticated reasoning; sometimes they will only relate to the simplest and most immediate of arguments; sometimes children just have to be told what to do.
That is why most parents will try to pursue a mixed approach to parenting, with some assertion and some reason.
So – despite how much a parent may strive to reason with their child – a raised voice should never be seen as an indication of parental failure. It just means that other parenting methods are deemed to be more appropriate.