the myth of the teachable moment

July 6th, 2011

Teachable moment a learning opportunity for a child to acquire new information, values, morals, a new behavior or a new skill, or a new way of expressing and coping with an emotion.

I’m a failure at teachable moments. By that I mean I’m a failure at teaching teachable moments. I’m so lousy at teachable moments that I’m declaring myself an official dropout. I don’t know how to teach a moment when the moment is always teaching me. What the moment teaches me is to accept.

In truth, my heart abandoned the endeavor once I got a good whiff of the notion that whatever moment our kids are having isn’t quite enough. Not instructive enough, powerful enough, or motivating enough. The concept that what life needs is a lab assistant – me – someone to add and extract value from the raw materials. Someone to turn the crank, press the button, squeeze the lemon and add sugar. The moment I bailed on teachable moments may well have been my first successful teachable moment.

Don’t get me wrong. If my daughter asks me a question, I answer. If she comes to me to talk, I listen. That’s never a problem.

The problem is only when she acts in a way I don’t like.

Let’s look closely at what it is we’re supposed to be teaching. No one is telling us to teach our way through the easy times. We’re talking about teaching our way around what we don’t like: our kids’ disappointment, sadness, jealousy, and frustration, for starters. We’re trying to teach our kids out of what they are momentarily feeling, thinking and doing, or at least I am, every time I am confronted with what someone tells me is a teachable moment.

When the children are little, many of these so-called opportunities arise from that elusive morality of “sharing.” When our little kids don’t share – and they don’t – we are mortified. Shouldn’t we be teaching them how to be nice right this moment while I’m standing here mortified? I could never make that work.

These uncomfortable moments might be triggered by loss and frustration. When our kids cry and pout over their disappointments, especially in public, we are humiliated. Shouldn’t we be teaching how to get over it right this moment while I’m standing here humiliated? Can’t claim I ever have.

Moments already have a way of imparting life skills. It’s called the hard way, and it happens to be the only way. Life is the teacher itself. Every single moment – high, low, happy, sad, kind, angry – is the teacher. Learning to trust the lessons takes time, more time than we think we have, and more time than we feel able to give. Few of us have mastered our lives, and the lessons keep mounting moment after moment, until there’s no more time left to learn.

I have vowed to use my time to change my own perspective. And so, every moment is my teacher, especially the ones I don’t like and can’t change.

Recently my daughter was grievously disappointed at the outcome of a competition. You know: the kind that other people win and you lose. She was inconsolable at the irreversibility of the outcome. I had to keep reminding myself that it had happened to her and not to me. It was hard to watch her carry on, but it only lasted a short while past the point of my intolerance. (During this period, someone suggested to me that it was a teachable moment.) Believe me, I wanted to talk some sense into her. But no one has ever been able to disabuse me of my own thoughts and feelings, and there’s no reason for me to think I can do it to her. So instead of trying to teach her about how to handle the disappointment, I waited and then asked what she had learned from it.

“I’ve learned it takes more time to practice,” she said. Teaching me the same.

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23 Comments »

  1. Perfect timing on this one, Maezen. Thank you.

    Comment by Kitty — July 6, 2011 @ 7:37 am

  2. Perfect. totally perfect. thank you

    Comment by DeAnne — July 6, 2011 @ 8:30 am

  3. Perfect timing for me, as well.

    Comment by Mama Zen — July 6, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  4. I was so happy to see this materialized!

    Comment by Kaishu — July 6, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

  5. Yes. Exactly. I dislike the words “teachable moment” as much as I dislik anything that has to do with children and “training”. You put it beautifully as always, Maezen. Thank you.

    Comment by Alana — July 6, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

  6. Ahh yes, the “teachable moment”…
    The group think and staple of the public school system. As teachers, we are taught to pride ourselves on our ability to seize this “moment” as though we alone orchestrate the whole thing. Yikes, now I hear the screaming “Ego,ego,ego…” Thank you for the view.

    Comment by Kelly — July 6, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

  7. I love you. xoD

    Comment by denise — July 6, 2011 @ 9:05 pm

  8. Wonderful – this is so right on! Learning how to get over it rather than teaching how to get over it.

    Comment by David Ashton — July 6, 2011 @ 9:54 pm

  9. Love this. May I repost this article on my website with a link back to you. The peace and forgiveness in parent-ing’s lack, with the trust and faith in life’s completeness is beautiful.

    I’m hoping to see you in Denver in Sept.

    Cheers,
    Ann

    Comment by Ann — July 7, 2011 @ 5:43 am

  10. I loved this Maezen! There is so much pressure to always be instructing, teaching, explaining the lesson of the moment. It leaves me feeling like such a hard-nosed failure when I am the one in the need of loving instruction, explanation and wisdom. Thank you for reminding me that we are always learning and always doing better, even if we chose to just go with the flow.

    Comment by Vanessa — July 7, 2011 @ 11:42 am

  11. tears of relief as i imagine releasing ‘teaching’ and instead deepening my journey of letting go, letting be, allowing, accepting, being. one breath at a time. thank you, karen.

    Comment by melissa — July 7, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

  12. <3

    Comment by Imelda — July 7, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

  13. Thank you! Love this. Once, when my son was 18 months, he was having a tantrum. I told him I saw that he was angry and another mother told me that I shouldn’t tell him he was angry and that I should teach him another word. It was all I could do not to have a tantrum myself, but I internalized that and made myself the Bad Mother. Thanks for letting us all off the hook and allowing us to just be in the moment, not instructing it.

    Comment by Pamela — July 7, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

  14. Pure poetry… again. Thank you!

    Anything I could say on top of another person’s learning experience is hilariously irrelevant.

    Comment by char — July 7, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

  15. As we navigate strange and overwhelming moments with our oh-so-grown-up 5 year old I really appreciate this post. I must have my husband read it. This is a concept he struggles with, and it encapsulates perfectly how I feel we should approach parenting.

    P.S. I think this WAS a teachable moment 🙂
    xo

    Comment by Christine @ Coffees & Commutes — July 8, 2011 @ 3:46 am

  16. This may be my favorite piece of all your writing. And I’ve ready both your books multiple times. Very nice!

    Hoping I get to see you when you are in Colorado in a couple of months.

    Comment by Chris Brown — July 9, 2011 @ 6:11 am

  17. Well said. Well needed. Thank you.

    Comment by Rebecca — July 12, 2011 @ 4:06 am

  18. Wow. Yes. “Every moment is my teacher, especially the ones I don’t like and can’t change.” Have had quite a few of those lately. Learning the good, hard lessons from all of them.

    Comment by Katrina Kenison — July 12, 2011 @ 11:26 am

  19. I especially enjoyed this reflection about teachable moments. Both as a parent and a (former) classroom teacher, I have used this phrase as a code to comfort myself when my lesson plan was “derailed” by the realization of a more pressing agenda. Recently, I wrote an essay about what I learned from a so-called teachable moment while watching Glee with my teenage daughter, when I came to appreciate that the child is really the teacher in such moments. Your wise words inspired me to revisit this life-lesson.
    Thank you for the inspiration,
    Rabbi Pamela Gottfried
    P.S. – Here is the link to my piece: http://www.pamelagottfried.com/teachable-moments-2/ I welcome your comments!)

    Comment by Pamela Gottfried — July 19, 2011 @ 4:48 am

  20. I am so happy to find support and confirmation from this post. As a mama to a lively 3.5 yr old, I struggle with the raised eyebrows that come at times when I allow life to teach lessons to my daughter rather than my words.

    Comment by Mama Baba — August 8, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

  21. Thank you for this post. The insight feels right on to me. The “teachable moment” gets in the way of real connection and just being together. It’s more of that that our kids need of us rather than being “taught.”

    Comment by Zoie @ TouchstoneZ — August 26, 2011 @ 10:18 pm

  22. This is beautiful Maezen. Thank you for sharing. I read this in the wake of morning at gymnastics with my two-year old who did not want to sit on her mat (understandably so, when there were jumping gear all around! ), did not want to sit still or follow instructions. And I couldn’t think of it as a teachable moment!!! Exhausted after 45 minutes of activity, I felt like I had run a marathon. Can motherhood really be this tiring or is it me? My mind goes on. Your blog brings solace.

    Comment by Shuba — September 4, 2012 @ 9:20 am

  23. Thank you for this! One thing that I wish was discussed more, is when other parents feel the need to point out a “teachable moment” for a child other than their own. Parent your own child not mine!

    Comment by Lefty — August 19, 2013 @ 8:21 am

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