One Question that Can Help You Be a Better Dad

Our annual essay contest always brings out some amazing thoughts from kids. Sometimes the essays make you laugh out loud; sometimes they break your heart.

And quite often you get a nugget or two about how to be a better dad. This week is about one of those:
The essay is by Eric, a high school senior, who starts out his essay with a quote from his dad: “Did you learn anything?” That’s what Eric’s dad always says whenever Eric makes a mistake or messes up something. Here’s how Eric stated it:

This quote was quickly thrown out with a smile every time I did something wrong in childhood. My dad has always been more concerned about me learning from past experiences than [punishing me] when I actually goof up. I remember in grade school when I ran our riding lawn mower into a tree because I had been texting. Instead of a [long] lecture, my dad just smiled and threw out the old faithful quote: “Did you learn anything?” Needless to say, I have not run my car into a tree because I was texting.

It’s a good approach for so many reasons. When a child messes up, too often we feel like we have to make him feel bad or show him who’s boss. But if we really have his best interests in mind, we’ll take the longer view. We’ll maximize the chances that he’ll learn something he can use later in life.

And just in case you missed them, here are a few things Eric pointed out about his dad.

First, he used the question, “Did you learn anything?” instead of a lecture. He didn’t go off on him or say “Why aren’t you more responsible?” five times in five different ways. He used a strategic question and let it have its effect.

Then, second, Eric’s dad said this with a smile. That’s tough … but it’s so important. When our kids mess up, too often we make our anger and disappointment the main issue. And the kids inevitably respond with their own fit out of embarrassment or shame. But if we can stay calm and smile, it can change the mood entirely.

Dad, try it next time your child messes up. Don’t lecture, put a smile on your face, and ask, “Did you learn anything?”

Maybe our dads’ lectures worked on us … and maybe they didn’t. But today’s kids need to be heard and understood. (And they’re usually smart enough to know what they did wrong.) Sometimes they do need to hear truth from us, but often a dialogue or a thoughtful question will get through to them and teach them much more effectively—and greatly increase the likelihood that they’ll come back to you next time they have a question.

Do you have questions or sayings you use to help your child learn from mistakes? Or … here’s a good one … how do you keep your cool when your kids mess up? Please join the discussion either below or on our Facebook page.

Action Points for Dads on the Journey

  • Whenever you feel like lecturing your child, listen first. Make sure you understand—and your child feels heard—before you start talking.
  • Do you know your child’s learning style, and what makes her feel loved? If not, pick up a good book on those topics—such as the ones here and here—and discuss what you learn with her mom or someone else who knows your child well.
  • When your child is speaking, imagine that he’s one of your good friends. Would you lecture or correct your friend when he’s made a mistake or experienced some difficulty? It’s different with our children, but this can be a helpful perspective.
  • Some other great questions: “What do you think might work?” “What are the options?” “Have you considered …?”

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There may be no more important work than turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and that’s what this is all about. We’re seeking to repair, rebuild and restore effective fathering for the benefit of children and families everywhere.