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Three Tips for How to Recognize a Teachable Moment

When parents think they've found a teachable moment it might not be teaching anything

Parents often rely on teachable moments to help their children make behavioral changes. And most parents would agree that they know those moments when they see them. Say, an incident occurs for which there are undesirable natural outcomes for the kid (or someone else). These moments feel like a prime opportunity for learning; they feel like a time to examine bad decisions and their consequences and draw broad conclusions.

The problem is that when parents pounce on a teachable moment, it can feel more like a smug “I told you so” rather than an empathetic attempt to tease out positive lessons. And when kids are emotionally unprepared to be taught, the teachable moment becomes a lesson in guilt and shame — all of which is unhelpful for behavioral change.

So what is a teachable moment, really? And how can parents leverage them to help a kid grow?

Teachable Trouble

Neil Katcher, father to an 8-year-old son and creator of the popular Mortified podcast has made his living out of examining teachable moments. Katcher’s work has largely been concentrated on adults looking into their cringe-worthy past for lessons, but his most recent podcast project Ooh You’re In Trouble (now in its second season) mines the questionable decisions of scofflaw kids.

The rule breakers and renegades on the kid-centric, true-crime-lite podcast aren’t slouches in the trouble department. Consider the young lady who tells about shoplifting balloons as a 6-years-old, or the kid who at 13, took a terrifying joyride with her little sister for McDonald’s milkshakes.

Immersed as he is in bad choices, Katcher has learned a thing or two about teachable moments. Namely, they might be easier to address when they aren’t actually connected to your own kid.

“Weirdly this podcast has become a tool in my own life which I was not expecting,” Katcher says. He notes that it can be tough to address his son’s teachable moments, particularly when they’re fresh. But as the pair listen to the teachable moments explored by Ooh You’re In Trouble’s guests, “The stories create enough distance that I don’t have to wait six hours to go have the conversation. I can pause in the moment if I hear him reacting.”

According to Phyllis Fagell, licensed clinical professional counselor and author of Middle School Matters, teachable moments do become easier to discuss when they’ve happened to other people. “Anything that gives a child emotional distance will help a child feel less judged, less criticized, which is the quickest way to have them shut down,” she explains. “So if you’re talking about someone else’s mistake it’s easier because you can avoid that perception of judgement.”

How to Determine a Teachable Moment

Both Katcher and Fagell, who is an educational consultant for Ooh You’re In Trouble’s podcast network PRX, have developed some great guidelines for how parents can determine teachable moments. They suggest the key is to look to kids for guidance rather than making assumptions about what a teachable moment is and when it happened.

Disconnect from Parental Emotions: Parents often feel that lessons need to be taught in the heat of the moment, but those are often the least helpful times to start teaching Fagell says.

“As adults we often view something as a teachable moment because we’re frustrated, we’re stressed. We want to do something at that moment because it’s about our anxiety,” she explains. But that anxiety can translate as anger and judgement, leading to shame. “If a kid feels like there’s no path back to being a good kid then there’s no point to them in having that conversation.”

Consider the Context: Fagell notes that parents should remember behaviors are like icebergs. Beneath every observable choice a child makes (good or bad) there are emotional and psychological antecedents that remain hidden.

Katcher focus on those antecedents in his show, and says that parents might be surprised by the context of certain behaviors. “It’s never what you expected it to be,” he says. “The context can only come from the kid and it takes time to understand that context. So, for me, most of the teachable moment is listening”

Get Comfortable Asking Questions: Fagell understands the parental urge to to be flummoxed by children’s choices. But when it comes to questions, she urges parents to steer clear of asking accusing questions like, “What were you thinking?”Instead, she suggests that parents ask open ended questions that are grounded in empathy and curiosity.

Katcher uses a similar technique to coax stories from the kids that share their stories on his podcast. “We actually map out the entire story with them. And we don’t ask for conclusions until we know the whole story until we go through it all,” he says. “By doing that they have a broader perspective as to what happened to them and why they did what they did.”

How to Use a Teachable Moment

Fagell and Katcher note that kids seem to internalize lessons best when they can reach conclusions on their own. But parents often have a hard time giving up control of the narrative.

“There’s a misconception about teachable moments that they are like parables,” Fagell says. But, she explains, teachable moments rarely have a liner path between mistake and outcome that can be solved by logistical decisions. “Maybe the teachable moment has to do with sitting with discomfort, or managing an uncomfortable emotion.”

Using a teachable moment, then, is about embracing ambiguity and complexity. Because, in truth, trouble rarely arrives with simple explanations or solutions, as much as parents would prefer that to be the case.

“We often think we want to fix it for them, because it’s uncomfortable for us to see them in discomfort and making what we can see trite away is a poorly calculated decision,” Fagell says. “Sometimes we believe that we are responsible for making sure that the teachable moment happens. But so often it happens organically and our job is to reflect on what they realized on their own.”