It is easy to draw up the purely academic with the phrase “teachable moments,” but even as a teacher of 4-6 year olds in my former life, I always felt teachable moments were those that touched our hearts and taught a value that one would really remember and internalize.
One of the teachable moments that I remember most vividly from my career happened when 5-year-old Nathaniel was struggling with his parents’ very contentious divorce. One day, this sturdy young child crumbled into a sobbing heap when his brown paper lunch bag ripped and his apple rolled across the floor. He sobbed uncontrollably in my arms as I said, “It is so hard when things don’t go the way we want.” When his sobbing began to subside, I said, “I know exactly what we need,” and returned with a large roll of masking tape. We taped that bag until you could drive a truck across it, and for weeks after, Nathaniel made elaborate creations with tape: trains that would never move, buildings so strong they would never fall. This was a profoundly teachable moment for us both because of what we had learned: I, as a very young teacher, had learned the power of symbolic reactions, and Nathaniel, as a very young person, had found a way he could feel some control during a turbulent time.
When we put words and responses to our children’s actions and emotions, we give them a sense of control as well as understanding: teachable moments. Children over six years old, and adults as well, use information-seeking behavior as a way to feel in control. For example: When are you coming back? Why do I have to take the medicine, swallow the pill, get the shot? If we look at these situations as teachable moments, which they are, they become less irritating and more fulfilling for all involved! We as parents need to recognize teachable moments in everyday life, the simple yet powerful connectors to understanding, not just words to curb annoying behavior, although that will always be around and appropriate!
There are many situations in everyday life that provide the scaffolding to broader understanding as our children grow and develop. When you are walking down the sidewalk and your child sees a dead bug, bird, worm, don’t hurry them past. Stop and look, talk about what happened, utilize this moment to talk about death and dying. Don’t worry, this need not be more than a simple explanation: the bug’s body stopped working because..., and it does not feel any hurt anymore. Although this may lead to more questions, that is good, there is no need to be frightened of these questions - they are not if we are not. This type of early teachable moment can provide a foundation that can be built on as they cognitively begin to grasp broader concepts; doing this will allow them not be so frightened and/or uninformed.
We as parents provide the model for how our children approach things physically, emotionally, and socially. This does not need to be a heavy burden. Our children come in to the world with their own way of responding to the world around them. This is their temperament, identifiable at birth and present throughout life. The qualities of different temperaments include: activity, rhythmicity, approach/withdrawal, adaptability, intensity, mood, persistence and attention span, distractibility, and sensory threshold. So, although they will have their own fundamental tendencies, we can use everyday occurrences to provide ways to ease difficult situations by recognizing their basic approach to situations and showing new ways to respond. “You are having a hard time choosing your socks because you like them to feel a certain way. I will find two pairs that you can pick from.”
The above example is a simple, everyday moment that allowed the child to feel acknowledged (teachable moment) and yet still given boundaries (you can choose between these two). Believe me, I know that this will not work in all situations nor it need to. The point is to give the information and then build on that as they become more capable of grasping the concept. We do not expect our children to be potty trained with one try; the same is true for other concepts.
Recognizing situations that are difficult for children and represent a loss to them is important so that we can understand and respond to their behavior. Before children have had certain developmental experiences of childhood, they often cannot recognize what they are feeling and they then act out, melt-down, shut-down. Young children can only show us how they feel through their behavior; as caregivers, we can help them put words to it and provide something that can help them process the “loss” so they can grow and learn from difficult situations. Some more examples of situations that can represent a loss to a child might include: the end and beginning of school, a friend moving, an anniversary of a death (no matter how long ago or how old the child was), family move, or changing home environment in any way (did you ever throw away toys without your child’s knowledge?). - Things that can help are making books, taking pictures, writing letters, acknowledging an anniversary and planning something (if desired), or preparing in advance for a doctor’s visit. (Really, NEVER surprise your child with these visits, it affects their trust indefinitely.)
Looking for, recognizing, and providing teachable moments is a great gift of parenting. Obviously, we can look at all moments as teachable, but some will be more important as a foundation to our value system, our support of our child, and help in filling a “tool bag” of responses that they can use academically, emotionally, socially, environmentally, and beyond. The one word we never learned about parenting ahead of time is relentless; one can’t prepare for that, but developing the framework for using the continual teachable moments of our daily life will help build more on the importance of dependability and the magic of childhood.