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Talk vs. Action
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When I was a kid, my parents rarely asked me to explain myself when I misbehaved—and it didn’t matter whether the misbehavior occurred at home, at school, or in the neighborhood. In fact, if I even tried to propose an explanation, they would generally cut me off by saying something along the lines of, “There are no excuses.”

And, as I now realize, every one of my prospective explanations was an attempt to excuse myself, to justify what I had done, to pass the buck. Children have been doing this since day one.

For more on that, read western civilization’s first parenting story—Genesis 3—and note that Adam passed the buck to Eve, and Eve passed it on to the serpent. Neither was willing to accept responsibility for what he or she had done, in full knowledge that it was wrong. That’s kids for you.

When their children misbehaved, my mother’s generation acted. In the 1960’s, however, parents begin listening to experts who promoted the notion that good parenting was primarily a matter of how well one talked to one’s child.

So, where yesterday’s parent acted, today’s parent tends to talk, and not just talk, but talk-talk-talk-talk-talk-talk and then, talk some more. Mind you, talking is not all bad. There’s a time and a place for it, but the time and place is not always and everywhere. In the course of all their talk-talk-talk, many of today’s parents actually help their children evade responsibility for misbehavior.

A mother recently told me that her five-year-old is misbehaving at school. Nearly every day he brings home a bad-behavior report, and she responds by sitting down and talking with him about it. “What happened?” she asks. “Why did you do this and that? What were you feeling? Oh, and what did she do then? And how did you feel about that? And what did you do then? And why did you do that? And what might you have done instead?”

Mom told me she always feels these conversations clarify and help her son come to a “better understanding of how to act better next time,” but when the next time happens, he acts badly again. Sometimes, he acts even worse, in which case, they talk some more.

Opportunity to Construct Excuses

Unwittingly, this mom is giving her son the opportunity to construct excuses for his misbehavior, to explain it away. Furthermore, these Socratic exercises have taken the place of consequences.

I propose that instead of her son leaving these conversations wanting to act better, he leaves understanding that he can act pretty much as he pleases because (a) nothing of consequence will happen—just talk, and (b) he has his reasons, after all! Even if his reasons don’t sound good to anyone else, they sure sound good to him. Besides, given the age of the child in question, I’ll venture that he knows without being told that what he did was wrong and what he should have done instead.

The opportunity to construct excuses gives a child the opportunity to create a case for acquittal. If it’s not accepted, the problem lies not with him but with his parent, who simply doesn’t understand. And thus the child is transformed, in his mind at least, from someone who behaved badly into someone who’s misunderstood.

When a child misbehaves, an adult needs to impress upon him or her that bad decisions result in bad consequences. A child won’t perceive it as “bad” when his or her parent sits down for a talk. It’s simply inconvenient. What’s “bad” is having one’s bicycle taken away for a week, having a weekend with a friend cancelled, or having to write a letter of apology to the offended party.

In short, punishment is “bad,” and when dealing with bad behavior, one must fight fire with fire.

Now, after a parent has punished, talk is fine. But first things first. And always take care that your talk doesn’t open the door to excuses. Because for bad behavior, there are none.

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By John Rosemond. Reprinted with persmission from Signs of the Times, March 2005. Copyright © 2007 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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