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Lucky Dad No. 12: It Doesn't Have to Be a Learning Opportunity

The experts remind us of the importance of interacting with our children, especially when they are small. This is the sort of advice that falls into the category that my old boss referred to as a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious. They are cute, and they are ours. Why shouldn’t we want to play and read and sing and wrestle with them? There is one area, though, where we often get it wrong, and that is in our use of the Learning Opportunity.


The Learning Opportunity has a dreadful significance in the lives of children. Here’s how it goes down. The kid is living her life, caught up in her own little world, oblivious to the adult universe. Then—Bang!—She commits some minor infraction. She fails to make eye contact and shake hands when introduced; she doesn’t say “Please” or “Thank you;” she steps on the neighbor’s tulips; she leaves her dirty plate at the table when guests are present. You know exactly what I am talking about, because you did all of these things, and a thousand more, when you were a child. These little faux pas are easy to ignore, but somehow parents can’t resist the urge to turn them into Learning Opportunities. Next thing you know, the child is caught in the cogs of the machine. The parent is down on one knee, confronting the child with the error of her ways, and explaining patiently—that is to say, endlessly—about what went wrong, why it was wrong, how it should be corrected, how we’ve been over this before and don’t you remember, and on and on. Pity the poor child who receives these tender attentions from a parent.


Pause and consider whether any good will come of this. The child has not asked for this little homily, and is probably not in a mood to receive it with grace and good will. The child has committed a misdemeanor. In response, one sentence from the parent should suffice: “Put your dishes in the sink,” “Don’t stare at people,” “Don’t hit your sister,” are examples of time-honored phrases that comprehensively address such situations. Once the child sees us go down on one knee with a stern and earnest expression, though, the child knows what is coming—a sermon, complete with Socratic questioning, until the dead horse has been beaten and the moral hammered home. (When I was a kid, we didn’t call them Learning Opportunities, by the way. We called them Lectures, but that’s because we were the kids then.)


I was having a conversation once with an adult by a coffee table that had a bowl of little candies on it. Her child approached; a little boy of two or three, with still-weak language skills, but with a highly effective communications strategy. He pointed at the candy bowl, and gave his mother an inquiring look. What a sweet little way of asking for a piece of candy! In response, his mother said something like this: “Well, you know that we are going to have dinner in a little while, and you mustn’t spoil your appetite. We don’t eat sweets before dinner. But I suppose it is all right this time, if you have just one.” The little boy stared uncomprehendingly at his mother throughout this exegesis, never changing his pose or expression. After a beat, I leaned forward, and said, “Yes.” Whereupon his face lit up, he took a piece of candy, and trotted off.


Parents, we know that you are well intentioned, but please stop. You are wasting time—both yours and your child’s—and exhausting limited reservoirs of good will. Not everything is a Learning Opportunity. A full explanation of why the fork goes on the left and the knife and spoon on the right is simply unnecessary. Just give the child the basic instructions she needs to survive until her eighteenth birthday.

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