So Much to Teach — So Much to Learn

Shortly after leaving home last summer for a relaxing week at the beach, I noticed a white sports car in our rear view mirror, approaching with great speed. My guess is that they were doing triple digits. I said a quick prayer for the innocent drivers ahead of me. Ten miles later I saw that car again. I passed him, as he was doing zero, sitting along the side of the road, speaking to a police officer. Sometimes the system works.

Speed limits are, admittedly, a bit confusing. Driving with the flow of traffic seems to be the safest option, yet many times traffic is moving considerably faster than posted limits. What speed is safe, and what speed is legal? And what are we teaching our children as they watch our driving habits?

As I consider the parental responsibility to teach and discipline the children, I recognize the sheer amount of information that children must learn. There are so many lessons to internalize, and missing even one of those lessons can result in serious injury, to oneself or others. So much to teach and so much to learn.

I suggest three basic lessons from encountering speed limit signs. As I drive home from work, I pass a sign that says, “End Speed Limit 45.” The sign tells me what the speed limit is NOT; it does not tell me what the speed limit is. It might be telling me that I need to slow down to 35; it might be telling me that I can speed up to 55. The message is unnecessarily ambiguous.

As we seek to discipline and train our children, we need to be sure that we are teaching them what the correct choices are, and not just harping on the negative. Our children need to learn that certain behaviors are inappropriate, but we also need to be teaching them what the alternative correct choices are. Don’t just tell them to quit one behavior; explain what they should be doing instead. Discipline is more than teaching children to avoid problematic behavior; it also involves teaching positive behaviors.

At another location in town, after going through a “Speed Limit 25” section, a sign indicates “Speed Limit 35.” So, I start to speed up, when only 100 yards later, I encounter another sign, a blinking sign that informs me that the school speed limit is 15. I immediately take my foot off the gas and apply the brakes. I have just experienced inconsistent guidelines. Hence, a second lesson from local speed limit signs: avoid blatant inconsistencies. The disciplining of our children should aim to be consistent and predictable. Our children’s self-control will be better regulated when they can make reasonable predictions about the consequences of their behavioral choices.

Instead, I recommend as a model the speed limit signs that I see when traveling through the mountains in Virginia: “Speed Limit May Vary Next 12 Miles.” Due to wind, fog, winter precipitation, and heavy traffic, drivers must be prepared to regulate their behavior to maximize safety (which of course is always true, but rarely posted). The electronic posted speed limits are not fixed, but are adjusted in this 12-mile section (and clearly communicated) to inform drivers about appropriate behavior.

In fact, most childhood behaviors are not right or wrong in themselves, but rather are right or wrong in certain situations. Appropriate behavior on the playground doesn’t work in the classroom. Appropriate behavior after church doesn’t work during the service. Our children need to learn lessons about context and appropriateness of behavior. So much to learn.

Flexible speed limit signs suggest that rules and guidelines need to be malleable to fit the situation. Granted, there are some limits that we (almost) never cross. Triple digits on the highway are unwise in virtually every situation. However, within those limits, we need to be teaching our children to contextualize their behavior and their choices, just as we need to contextualize our driving speed.

One of my Facebook friends, a young parent, recently posted about his daughter’s singing creative, self-written, potty songs. He instructed her that she should only sing these songs in the bathroom, and to sing more family-friendly songs in the rest of the house. With this instruction, he was both telling her what not to do, and what to do. He was also helping her to contextualize her behavior—that which is undesirable in one setting can be appropriate in other settings.

Parents, my prayers are with you as you seek to consistently and positively teach and discipline your children, thereby investing your time in the health and well-being of the next generation.

Gary L. Welton

Gary L. Welton

Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.

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