Young people can be difficult. The trouble is that our adult to adult communication that serves us so well for the rest of life just malfunctions when children are involved. But, like any system, it can be hacked, and I’m going to show you how. Consider the following typical conversation:
1950’s Teacher: Now Jimmy, do your work!
Jimmy: I already tried, I can’t do it.
1950’s teacher: Keep trying, everyone else can do it.
Jimmy: I’ve already tried.
1950’s Teacher: I’m telling you. Do Your Work.
Jimmy: (huffs) I can’t.
It always amazes me at how willing people are to get in to fights with people who have much less to lose than they do. In short, people with less to lose often have options that their opponents don’t have… And options are power! I have an important announcement that should drastically change the way you think about talking with children – Children have much more freedom than we do. Consider what would happen if you pulled a sulky teenage-esque pouty face at your boss next time he gave you some constructive feedback?? Or perhaps when your spouse suggests dinner with a friend you find particularly boring, you emit a high pitched winge and storm off until you get your own way? If you did this in public people would assume one thing – you are fully mental! But yet, this is precisely the sort of tactics young people are free to use, and usually with tremendous success. So, how does one win?! The answer is to be the better child.
Psychologist Eric Berne created a field of psychology in the 1950’s known as Transactional Analysis. This subject is a fascinating field with much to explore, but today I will be discussing the concept of ‘Parent Adult Child’. In brief, when we talk to people we adopt one of three conversational/psychological styles: Parent, Adult or Child, and at various times we all adopt differing stances. Parents speak like parents do, over moralistic and imperious. Children speak like children do, full of emotions and spontaneity. Adults speak like a computer, logically working out optimum solutions to presented situations. The problem, I contend, with child – adult conflict is that we all too readily adopt our respective roles. When the Child winges the Parent morally condemns, then the Child storms off and the Parent displays righteous indignation. The problem with playing out this drama is that the drama often results in a sub-optimal solution to the problem at hand. The child winges, the adult condemns, and both parties come out the worse. lose – lose. And, which is worse, the Child has so many more options to play that there is an always real chance that they can get their own way, particularly when the Adult needs to impart education in order to win.
So here is a great tip that has won me the hearts, minds and academic futures of so many of my students. If the student is playing the ‘Child card’ you do it too. Think about it, you are smarter, stronger and funnier that any kid, and you’ve already graduated childhood, so you know all the best tricks. When a child starts acting up, you act up too, and do it better. Consider the following conversation that really happened between my and one of my students, a charming 10 year old girl called Evie:
Evie: Oh this question is just too hard, I can’t do it!
Richard: Yeah you’re right, there’s no point at all
Richard: This question is so unreasonable that we may as well just go home and cry ourselves to sleep!
Richard: No Evie, there is absolutely no point in even trying, the most sensible thing to do here is to just stop trying.
Evie: Haha, very funny. …OK, so how do you do it?
In this conversation you can see Evie opens with a moderate ‘Child’ emotional outburst which was definitely not conducive to academic success. Part of me wanted to take the Adult-Child conversational path, and say something rubbish like, “It’s not hard Evie, you’ve already done this type of exercise before.” But we’ve all been there before, this strategy rarely works. Instead, I reverted to my own 28 year old hyper-Child and took an even more ridiculous stance than she did. Evie couldn’t compete at that level, so she switched to an Adult-Adult conversational style at the end.
I want to impress upon you all that the Parent style that most educators tend to fall in to is actually a very limited position indeed. Parents are so bound up with correct codes of conduct that they actually have very little room for manoeuvre, and trust me on this one, ‘options’ are just about a synonym for ‘power’ itself. Consider the stuffy Parent trying to impose their brand of moralistic imperiousness on a clever teenager. If you can, periodically offer the Adult-Adult grape vine, as this is by far the best way to engage in learning. However, when the young person pulls a ‘Child’ on you, go nuclear and hit them back with an even bigger Child.
One final thought for you: This stuff works on childish grown-ups too.