Dear Annie, I just got a call from my son's math teacher. She says he's consistently goofing off in class and distracting other students. I've gotten similar calls from other teachers. How can I impress upon him that this isn't OK? – Embarrassed Mom
When it comes to teaching kids to be good people (our #1 parenting job), we repeat ourselves... a lot. That's due, in part, to the fact that young skulls are thick and young minds are often distracted. We continue harping on the rules because we want our kids to act responsibly, even when we're not around. That's why we're thrilled to hear a good report from our kids' teachers. At those times, all a proud mom or dad needs to do is smile graciously and reply, "That's so nice to hear." But what about the not-so-great reports? How do you talk to your child about those?
6 Tips for discussing out-of-line behavior so your child gets a clear message yet still feels loved and supported:
1. Get the facts. Before talking with your child, talk with the teacher, calmly and respectfully. Find out exactly what’s going on and how it has been handled so far. Find out if other students are involved. The more information you have for your upcoming discussion with your child, the better.
2. Talk with your co-parent. If there are two parents in your child’s life, teaching him or her to do the right thing should involve both of them. Getting both parents on the same page adds twice the reinforcement for the course correction your child needs. Being on different pages (or in different books!) sends mixed messages. Suppose one parent says, “Emma, when you’re in class your job is to be the good student I know you can be. That means showing your teacher and your classmates respect by paying attention.” And the other parent chuckles and says, “Fooling around in class? That’s my girl! I gave my teachers a hard time, too.” Obviously, no responsible parent would say that in front of a kid, but you get the idea why staying on message matters.
3. Talk with your child. Now you're ready. Call a family meeting and bring snacks. (Always appreciated). Present the information you have. Stay calm as you ask, “What’s true about your behavior in class?” Your child will likely deny the teacher’s report, to which you might reply, “If it’s not accurate, why do you think s/he said it?” You might hear, “The teacher hates me.” Or “I dunno.” Don’t buy it, but don’t lose your cool. Simply put on your Good Cop hat and dig deeper. After some more gentle encouragement in the direction of the truth, your child may walk back the denial. “I might fool around a little, but I'm not the only one.” Or, “I’d pay more attention if Mr. __ wasn’t so boring!” These are justifications for bad behavior. Acknowledge them calmly, but don’t invest any money. Simply repeat the question, “What’s true about your behavior in class?” At this point, your child may confess, “I guess sometimes I talk while the teacher is talking.” Now we’re getting somewhere!
4. Help your child take responsibility. We control our own behavior. Sure, others may influence our choices, but ultimately our decisions (to act out in class, to blow off a homework assignment, to spread a nasty rumor, etc.) are our own. Teach your children well. This one’s an important life lesson.
5. Move forward. Work with your child to create some new strategies for being a more attentive student. That includes new ways to respond to distractions in class, when the focus ought to be on the teacher, or at home, when the focus ought to be on homework.
6. Follow up. Work together to set realistic short-term goals and hold your child accountable. If s/he has been failing to turn in daily homework, set up a goal for the next one to two weeks that all homework will be completed (to the best of his/her ability) and turned in on time. Let your child share his/her progress with you. Acknowledge progress! IStay on top of things without hovering.
In all of this, your long-term parenting goal is helping your child understand that negative feedback can provide a valuable opportunity to make positive changes in school and in life.