One of the many benefits of spending a lot of time with our kids is that we are there when teachable moments naturally arise. We can rarely, if ever, create these. They normally occur as part of life. When we are not only physically present to witness them, but have a mindset to make the most of them, these moments are tremendous teaching opportunities to shape character in our kids.
Shortly after we moved to Kentucky, JD, my oldest, turned seven years old; Cal, my second son, was five and a half. I don’t even remember now what the conflict itself was, but I sure remember what it did to my boys and the teachable moment I seized. JD and Cal had some significant disagreement that escalated into a fight. For the first time I can recall, Cal hit JD, apparently rather vigorously. What bothered me more than the hitting and yelling was how this minor act of aggression and the angry words that followed had damaged their friendship. All three of our boys were best friends (and thankfully still are nine years later—perhaps in part due to what I’m about to share). They normally played happily with each other and generally enjoyed each other’s company. However, after this hitting and yelling incident, JD and Cal would not speak to each other, would not play with each other, they didn’t even want to be around each other. They did not know how to reconcile because they had never before broken their friendship like this.
We let this go for about two days to see if they could work this out on their own. That didn’t happen. I decided we needed to act. I thought creatively and devised a plan. I called my family together. We sat on the couch in the living room. I strategically placed JD and Cal between my wife and I so they were forced to sit next to each other. They did mange to create some safe space between them (a demilitarization zone of sorts I suppose). I held a plate and a tube of toothpaste in my fingertips. I handed both to Cal and asked him to squeeze some of the toothpaste out of the tube onto the plate. He stared at me. I assured him I was completely serious and told him again to do it. He squeezed a line of toothpaste about an inch long. I instructed him to hand the plate and the tube to JD, which he did. “JD,” I said, “now you put the toothpaste back into the tube.”
He looked at me, trying to figure out if I really mean it. “What?” he muttered under his breath. “How can I do that?”
“Just do it,” I replied. “I want you to put all the toothpaste back into the tube, and we’re not getting up from this couch until you do so.”
A stunned silence descended upon the room, until JD said, “That’s impossible.”
“Right,” I confirmed. Object lesson over, dad speech begins.
“Boys, this toothpaste is like our actions and words. When we allow hurtful actions and hateful words to come out of us, they’re forever out there. We can never take them back, even after we realize what we’ve done. The actions have still happened, the words have still been said, and the hurt can remain, sometimes for a long time. We can damage relationships we value and wound people we care about. The really hard part about that is that even when we feel bad about it later, and we want to take back what we did or said, we can’t. Just like how impossible it is to get this toothpaste back into the tube.”
As I was talking, I noticed JD and Cal were slowly moving physically toward each other on the couch. Soon, JD even casually rested his arm on top of Cal’s. So I continued talking, very curious to monitor what would happen.
“Boys, what’s really difficult is that when anger is expressed in hurtful words and hitting, it’s hard to make up. It’s hard to know how to move back close to the person we’ve hurt, even when we both want to. It takes courage for someone to initiate the process by apologizing, saying they’re sorry. That takes bravery and humility (notice my intentional use of character words). And it takes compassion for the offended person to forgive and receive the apology. Usually, both people involved in the hurt have something to apologize for, and something to forgive. This is called reconciliation, boys. Reconciliation essentially means making up. And it draws people back together when they’ve been hurt.”
I felt astounded to see our boys spontaneously apply what they had just learned. They apologized to each other and they both said, “I forgive you.” Without any prodding from me, they reached out and hugged each other. So we all piled on and hugged one another and laughed aloud. It was a fun, playful, affectionate way to break the tension that had existed in our home for two days. Then I simply said to them, “Now go have some fun and don’t be such goof balls again.” And off they ran, happily, to play outside together.
Good, huh? You can use that one with your kids, and you don’t even have to tell them you learned it from me. I’m not telling you where I learned it (I can’t remember now, but I must have read something like this in a book sometime. I’m sure I didn’t come up with it by myself.).
Take advantage of those valuable, important teachable moments that arise as life happens in your family to shape the character of your children for the rest of their lives. Set your mind to look for those teachable moments. Be as ready as you can to seize them and utilize them when they occur.
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