How Do You Teach Judgment?


I learned early on that parenting is about weathering phases. It’s some sort of crazy combination of recognizing when a new phase has begun and figuring out how to respond, then applying a lot of stamina. It’s more about outlasting a phase, less about mastering it.

I don’t know what this current phase is called, but much of what I seem to be doing is teaching judgment. In the past, I’ve taught swimming, bike riding, monkey bars, how to tie shoes, how to zip zippers, how to propel oneself on a swing without being pushed, how to make a lay-up, how to throw a spiral, how to skip a rock, scoop a litter box, make a bed, whistle, snap fingers and cluck.

With all these out of the way, I’m left with teaching judgment. Can I go back to teaching the art of balancing on two wheels? This new phase seems much tougher than bike riding. It’s much harder to take complex topics and drill them down into very simple lessons that help children become adults who make good decisions.

When I first became a parent, all of my time was spent taking care of the basic needs of three babies, and–have no doubt–it took every minute of every day, for months and months. The things I hated hearing the most were, “You need to take time for yourself,” “When the babies sleep, you need to sleep,” and “Make sure you build in date nights.” Yes, right. . .because there was a line of volunteers standing at the door every Friday night ready to change diapers and feed three screaming babies while the husband and I went out on dates. To be fair, we had a number of people who were very generous with their time and helped me and my husband, and we appreciated them more than I can say. Yet, most of the time, as it probably should be, it was just us, and there was little that we did beyond feeding babies, changing diapers and trying to get babies to sleep.

There was one phase in my own life where I had so much time on my hands, I spent hours actively figuring out ways to make the time go by. I was single, I was living in a town where I knew few people, I had a 9-to-5 job, and I had time to kill. I’m now so far removed from that phase, the things I did during that time have slipped my memory, and only occasionally make themselves known, like a dream from the past. Earlier in the week, somebody asked me if I ever took tennis lessons. I started to say “no,” then I remembered: I took tennis lessons for months during that phase of my life. I took a “desktop publishing” class. I took guitar lessons. I did step aerobics, and I had a personal trainer who taught me how to use weight machines and put me on a fitness regimen. I was in a water skiing group, and I took writing classes. I ran some 5k’s, and I bought a bike. I was in two different book clubs, and I learned yoga.

Just like the period of my life with the guitar lessons and book clubs, the phase where I am taking care of my kids’ physical needs has ended, too. I’ve managed not to change a diaper or feed a baby in many years now, and I’m not sure I’d even remember how. Some part of me, probably some sort of evolutionary self-preservation mechanism, has erased much of that from my memory, and like the tennis lessons, it’s now closer to a dream than reality.

The phase I am in now doesn’t have much to do with taking care of physical needs. In fact, if I attempt to take care of the physical needs of these kids—to put on a stocking cap, to straighten a collar, to suggest eating more food—it’s met with fierce opposition.

Now, I answer questions, I explain, and I attempt the elusive task of teaching good judgment. “Use your common sense,” I say.

I answer questions about why people smoke (they started when they were young, and now they can’t stop, so don’t start), why people speed (they don’t think it’s important to be safe, but after they get into a car wreck, it will be too late for them to realize how important it is), why other people let their kids scream in restaurants and we do not (some people don’t care whether they are bothering others), whether taking Benadryl counts as using drugs (no), whether going to Harvard is a possibility (probably not), whether girls can play pro football (no), whether “shut up” is considered a cuss word (not really, but we’ll treat it like one), and on and on.

Teaching judgment is a tricky thing. It involves taking very complicated situations and drilling them down to their most basic level. The problem is, when you become an adult, things don’t seem simple anymore, and the gray areas are more and more apparent. You realize how hard some things are to explain.

Then there is the day you are in a National Park, at a look-out point that is at an elevation of 7,000 feet, and a tourist goes past the signs that say “DANGER” in big letters and performs for (meaning, horrifies) the rest of the crowd by prancing around on a boulder that hangs over the side of the mountain.

As I said, we are in a phase now where my job as a parent is to try to teach judgment. Don’t some people sure make it hard? Again, it seems to be about taking complex topics and drilling them down so a kid can make sense of it. That’s pretty tricky to do when, as adults, we don’t understand why people do the things they do.

With my children watching, I hear myself saying something like, “I have no idea why that person is doing that, but that is a really great example of poor judgment.” Some of our fellow sightseers hear the question and earnestly, undiplomatically, respond to the kids. “We were with those people at the last stop, and they were doing dumb things there, too.”

I have absolute confidence there is no way I will master this phase. I can only hope to outlast it, but I have a feeling we will be in this phase for a long time.

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