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Law #1: The more we talk, the less they learn

If children learned primarily through listening, child behavior experts like me would go out of business. Adults talk on and on to children to teach them behavior, but most of what is said goes in one ear and out the other. Children mainly learn by doing and by experiencing the results of what they have done.  For example, they are much more likely to learn to wear a coat on a chilly day because they got cold and experienced the warmth of putting one on than because of countless parental warnings about catching cold if they don’t.  

Another reason excessive talking can interfere with child learning is that children don’t understand adult language as well as we think they do. For instance, children have difficulty seeing that two things that don’t look alike can be similar. Adults can easily tell that a birthday cake and a loaf of bread have similarities (e.g., both are made with flour, both have been baked) while young children usually cannot. Thus, telling a young boy he is being disciplined for a behavior that is “just like” a behavior that got him in trouble last week may mystify him because he cannot see the sameness. All he knows for sure is that his mother or father is mad at him – again.   

Another kind of adult talk that can get in the way of child learning involves time-based concepts. For example, a dad who learns that his teenage son has done poorly on yet another test might make dire predictions about how the son will fare in college. However, the teenager, looking out into the future from a place called Monday, can barely see all the way to a place called Friday, let alone something as far away as college. In other words, using extended time-based concepts to get through to teens (or younger children) usually goes nowhere. 

So the bottom line is that when attempting to teach children, we should keep what we say short and simple. A good rule to follow is using one to two words to explain a desired behavior for every year the child has been alive. For conversations that are just about informing, relating to a child or having fun, there really is no limit. But for teaching moments, excessive and hard-to0-understand language can often do more harm than good.


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