Thursday, March 27, 2014

Seizing Teachable Moments and the Value of Shame

Our kids are like putty in our hands - soft, and deliciously squishy, of course, but also malleable, shapeable, editable, teachable.  As I'd said in my post yesterday, it all generally starts with the parents, or with grown-ups in a position of trust with our children. 

But do we always teach at all of the most appropriate times? 

Probably not.

Sometimes it's out of fear of giving the wrong information, sometimes it's out of ignorance, and sometimes it's out of our own discomfort with the topic at hand.

Learning to recognize and seize these "teachable moments" is as valuable a lesson for us, the grown-ups, as it is for the children with whom we speak.  And don't get me wrong, teachable moments are not only reserved for children...there are plenty of adults who benefit from a bit of schooling as well (although in these cases it's best to choose your battles and your moments wisely...)...

I recognize a teachable moment not as a time when math calculations or correct spellings are sought, but as a time when morals and values, manners and information that impacts other people, need to be addressed for the sake of the greater good, for the innocent mind, for the innocence and well-being of others.

And teachable moments are the ones that are remembered best by those on the receiving end.  How many of you recall the residual sense of shame for having been called out as a child for doing or saying something that, in retrospect, you felt bad about, that you felt that you should have known better about before doing/saying, that you vowed never to do again?

For example, I recall, when I was about 8 years old, going to my piano teacher's house after school for my weekly lesson.  A loquacious child, I was always brimming over with the need to talk, to spill out the details of my day, or, perhaps, just to hear the sound of my own voice (perhaps a by-product of being an only child!).  One day, I went in to her studio, where she was finishing up with another student before me, and began to chatter.  She stopped me in my tracks and said, "I'm talking - you need to wait until I'm finished, then say excuse me."  Well, I think my face turned every shade of pink and red at that moment.  I learned a very valuable lesson that day, and kept that moment in my mind for the rest of my life, carrying it with me like a badge of...not shame anymore...but honor.  I'd learned something important that day, and was on my way to becoming a better person for it.

So, before I go too far out into left field, too far astray from the point of my topic, I got feedback from Friday's school airing of Just Like You.  Samantha's teacher sent me an e-mail recounting some of the conversations that took place afterwards.  And, other than Samantha pulling up her shirt to show everyone the scar where "the doctor fixed my heart!" (whoops!), the children said some very interesting and insightful things. 

One boy stated, "Hey, that's the same disease Samantha has!", to which the teacher replied beautifully, "A disease is a sickness.  Samantha is not sick, and Down syndrome is not a disease."

Another boy recalled, out loud, that he had been very impatient with a boy in his after-care group who has Down syndrome, and that he realizes now that he should be more kind and more patient.  He said he couldn't wait to see him again so he could apologize to him. 

Ugh, that one makes me all teary-eyed. 

THIS, folks, is what it's all about. 

On a slightly more disconcerting note, and one that I believe to be more typical to occur out there, a Facebook friend recounted the other day a situation she'd just experienced where a classmate of her daughter with Ds told her and his mother that her daughter had been trying on his coat that day.  His mother said, "That's okay!" and he said, "No, it's not - she probably got Down syndrome all over it!." 

The mother of the boy was suitably horrified.  She told him they'd discuss it in the car, and they marched out quickly. 

As painful as that situation was for everyone, as hard as it is to read, and as awful as it had to be to hear in person, I suspect that the boy was, in turn, given some very valuable information by his mother, that she would have seized the teachable moment to impart one of those red-cheeked, shame-inducing lessons that he'll carry with him going forward.

Shame is not a bad thing ( defines it as "the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another."  Psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman states that "Shame is an acutely self-conscious state in which the self is 'split,' imagining the self in the eyes of the other.").  It builds our character, and makes us better people for being able to recognize our unintentional foibles.  We realize our mistakes, and vow never to make them again.

Lessons learned.

Teach, don't blame.

Be firm, but be gentle.

They are not aware that they'd done or said anything wrong.


Seize the moments when they happen.  Don't let them pass you by.  I promise you, they will not be forgotten, and they will make a difference.


TUC said...

That coat story - :-( In a moment like that I think I would be speechless, but maybe not. Kids come out with so many good and bad honest thoughts, and you are right, you have to seize the moment and teach because otherwise they grow up still thinking things like "Ds is a disease."

Anna Theurer said...

another excellent post, becca!

Rochelle said...

Great post my friend!

Rochelle said...

Great post my friend!

wendy said...

Wonderful post! You are so right!!

Cindy said...

When I have those teachable moments before me, it can sometimes be hard when I KNOW the person will be shamed or embarrassed by what I'm going to say. I tend to wait and say it later, privately, to minimize the shame. But you're right, it's usually something that we'd remember for the rest of our lives.

Angel The Alien said...

Your story about your piano teacher reminded me of when I was in kindergarten and I went up to the teacher to interrupt her while she was talking to the class. She actually put her hand over my mouth and held it there while she finished talking! I was so embarrassed, and for years I'd get embarrassed every time I thought about it... but it did teach me a lesson! As for little kids understanding Down syndrome, I read another blog recently where the mother of a child with autism was upset because the child's sibling referred to autism as a sickness. I think kids probably have a hard time understanding the difference between an illness that is spread by germs, and a condition that makes someone look or act different. If we don't teach kids about it, they are forced to come to their own conclusions. So it is a good thing that boy had this learning experience. Wow that was a long comment.