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Over-explaining easily backfires

IT was at the end of my daughter's fourth birthday party that Erika lost it.

IT was at the end of my daughter's fourth birthday party that Erika lost it.

She was crying as if her heart would break, she was kicking her feet making it next to impossible for her mom to help her into her boots and she was throwing her body back and forth.

Her mom stayed cool. In a soft voice she was saying, "Erika, I know you don't want to leave but the party's over. Erika, I am sorry you are unhappy but it's time to leave." The explanations went on.

Ericka did not hear a word.

Finally, Mom picked up the boots in one hand and the child in the other and went to the car. A few minutes later, I saw Erika fast asleep in her car seat.

Whew. Sometimes, explaining what is happening to our children makes no sense whatsoever.

"I will never say to my child, you'll do it because I said so." We don't want to see our children being raised to be mindlessly obedient and to do what they're told without understanding the reasons.

Explaining the rules and expectations helps our children to learn why we do what we do. They can understand that decisions are not always simple and that there are often unseen long-term consequences to our choices.

Which is all very well and good, but over-explaining can

easily backfire. Or, as in the case of Erika, explaining to a child who is long past being able to hear is just a waste of time.

Our explanations are often far too complex for young children. While a short, simple reason is fine, they are too young to understand long explanations. They aren't ready to follow and act on adult logic.

Toddlers and preschoolers are waiting to see what we're going to do. While we talk, they wait. We can explain to three-year-old Oliver that he must sit in his car seat because it's safe. We can even talk about what might happen in an accident if he were sitting with just a regular seat belt. But until we actually put him in the seat or give him the choice to sit in his car seat or stay home, he just won't get it.

I talk to a lot of parents who believe that if we explain the situation, the kids will automatically change their behaviour to meet our needs. The reality often is that the children aren't even sure what is being asked of them.

Five-year-old Shayla runs into the house in her muddy shoes and races into the kitchen, leaving dirty footprints in her wake. Her mom rushes in and says, "Shayla, I just washed that floor."

"Oh," is the neutral response as Shayla continues on her way, making even more mess.

"Shayla, I just washed that floor!" her mom shrieks as she grabs her, takes her to the back door and removes the offending shoes.

Shayla still doesn't get it.

If her mom had said, "Shayla, shoes off now. I just washed that floor and you're making it dirty again," the five-year-old would know what to do and why. But she just didn't get the connection between the job her mom had done (So she washed the floor, so what? Who cares? Certainly not Shayla who's keen to get into the house.), and the behaviour that was required.

You need to tell her in simple language exactly what you need from her.

Children quickly learn that they can forestall their parents by asking questions, and then more questions. If we're determined to explain we will keep talking.

Half an hour later, instead of going to bed or walking the dog, the kids have us deep into a discussion of "what's fair."

If they manage to outlast us (and kids have lots of patience for fruitless discussion!), we may well end up letting them off the hook: "Oh, forget it! I'll walk the damn dog myself!"

Lecturing is easy. Dealing with a child who is unhappy is not. But if we truly want to help our children, we need to help them to experience what will happen to them as a result of their actions. Explaining, then throwing up our hands in despair when our children do not respond in the way we had hoped, doesn't work.

Parents who refuse to deal with an unhappy child who does not, at that moment, "love" them, are parents who are neglecting the work of parenting.

Kathy Lynn is a parenting expert who is a professional speaker and author of Who's In Charge Anyway? and But Nobody Told Me I'd Ever Have to Leave Home. If you want to read more, sign up for her informational newsletter at