The Curse of Overexplaining
Parenting trends are really interesting, and I think that it's probably the same as most trends in human nature; the pendulum swings from one end to another, hopefully at some point landing somewhere in the middle.
When my parents were young, they were often told to do things followed by the explanation of, "Because I said so." Meaning: I am the adult, and what I say goes 100% of the time.
And I think to try and move away from that trend, you see parents moving to the opposite end of the spectrum, allowing their child to have a voice in and negotiate every decision.
I fall somewhere in the middle.
There are times where children should have a voice and be able to express their opinions, and then there are times that they just have to accept a parents' answer and do what they are asked to do.
As our children get older, we hope that we have taught them well and given them the tools necessary to make good choices for themselves.
The experts at Parent Like a Professional consider explanations to be one of the most valuable teaching tools you can utilize to help shape your children to be smart, thoughtful, and caring humans. EXPLANATIONS ARE SUPER IMPORTANT.
That said, explanations are only effective if:
Your child is old enough to understand
The timing is right
Let’s dive into the first part…
Is your child old enough to understand the explanation?
I’ve worked with countless parents who tell me, “I don’t get why my child does insert behavior here, even though he knows it’s wrong.”
When I ask the parents to elaborate on that statement (how do they know their child knows?), they tell me it’s because they tell their child ALL the time.
I then look at the 2-year-old child to whom they are referring, and I realize a child that age doesn’t have the language skills necessary to fully understand these types of explanations.
Additionally, young children do not have the cognitive development that would allow them to take an explanation and help it override the primitive desire of being a two-year-old.
Young children do not yet have the skills necessary to make difficult decisions.
Here’s an example that I see frequently: a young child who has a very picky palette. He does not like to eat vegetables, eats very few healthy proteins (HELLO, CHICKEN NUGGETS), and has a HUGE, sweet tooth.
In discussing the food issues with the parents, they tell me that when they were young children, their parents forced them to eat what was on their plate and they don't want to set up that type of unhealthy relationship with food, so they give their child more choices.
Then I see the choices that they offer: chicken nuggets, pizza, or a lentil dish.
They throw in a healthy option, but don't require their child to eat it -- especially if they make the choice for nuggets or pizza (Read: 4 Tips to Address Picky Eating).
Now let’s think about this same decision that we frequently make as adults.
We have the option of eating something unhealthy and very tasty or making the smarter decision of eating a salad.
Even with the knowledge that we have as adults (salad is better for us and won’t make us gain weight), we sometimes still make the unhealthy choice (which may contribute to higher cholesterol, gain weight, etc.).
Now think about giving this type of choice to a small child that doesn't yet have the ability to make those types of decisions; overriding the gratification of now for the benefit of later.
As parents, it’s our job to make that decision for our children; especially when they are young. As our children get older, we hope that we have taught them well and given them the tools necessary to make good choices for themselves.
Now let’s talk about the second pitfall of overexplaining; the timing.
Like we said above, we are all for explaining things to our children, but it has to be during a time that they are available for learning.
During a tantrum, our children have reverted to primitive emotional responses and are not in a place to learn new things.
More times than I can count, I have watched a parent very calmly explain to a screaming child that they cannot eat candy for breakfast because it is not healthy and they need to fuel their body with good foods.
Now, if the child is old enough to understand those concepts, then those are definitely things that we want to work on teaching.
However, we should capture teaching moments when our children are calm, happy, and attentive. During a successful breakfast of eating eggs, take the moment to explain that eggs are healthy foods and we eat healthy foods to fuel our body.
You can also choose to explain things to your child when they have finally calmed down and are no longer tantrumming. Once they have moved on from screaming about candy, sit down next to your child and have a chat about healthy foods and why mommy said, “no,” to candy.
Two Tips for Effective Explanations with Your Child
1. Keep explanations at the level of your child. For the very young, there needs not be an explanation at all (as my 8 week old baby is crying in his crib, I do not need to explain to him why he needs to sleep).
There are still times where it is important for our children to simply follow a parent’s direction without explanation.
2. Find teaching moments at times when your child is calm, happy, and attentive. Do not explain things when your child is in an elevated emotional state, as they are not available for learning at that time.