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We've all been subjected to boring and somewhat scary parental lectures as children, and we've probably all delivered them to our kids, as well. Are boring monologues a good way to punish kids, or should we approach things differently?

When my kids do something really annoying, I sometimes lecture or — let's be honest and call it what it is — deliver a boring monologue. Though I haven't been able to find any statistics indicating how many parents do the same, I suspect it's pretty much all of us, just as I'd bet that all of us remember being on the receiving end of lectures as children. Are these lectures a "good way to punish your kids"? The answer may be more complicated than it seems. 

Parental lectures: The benefits

So, "lectures", which you could also call monologues, moralizing, or even plain old nagging, do have their good sides — assuming you don't yell, scream, name-call, or shame your kids as you engage in them.
  • Lectures are better than spanking, for one. (Spanking isn't just psychologically harmful, it's also ineffective as a means of correcting behavior and increases the risk that your child will themselves become aggressive.)
  • They're better than name-calling ("stupid", "idiot", "disappointment", etc) and yelling, which research has shown to be almost as bad as spanking.
  • According to my kids, lectures make more sense than totally illogical consequences like extra chores for arguing among themselves or taking away Lego because they play on the computer too much.
  • If you've got teens, lectures are probably preferable to age-inappropriate interventions like, for instance, trying to stick your 17-year-old in a Supernanny-esque naughty corner.
  • Lectures are also better than simply letting your kids do whatever they want (AKA "permissive parenting"), a practice that leads to behavioral problems just like overly authoritarian parenting does. 

So, lecturing is better than some other things you could be doing instead. Another potential benefit for you, the parent, is that lecturing may allow you to blow off some steam, give you the feeling that you're doing something. 

When we tackle the question of whether boring monologues make a good punishment for kids, let's take Wikipedia's definition of punishment — "the imposition of an undesirable or unpleasant outcome" by some authority figure — and let's define "good" as "effective", meaning the inflicted punishment really is undesirable or unpleasant. Parental lecturing ticks the boxes, methinks, as no child enjoys these "little talks". So if making your child feel bad is your goal, lecturing does the job. If you have a different goal, like, you know, helping your child take ownership of their actions and raising them to actually want to do the right thing, a different strategy may be in order. 

Do kids actually learn anything from tedious, moralizing, monologues? 

Unlikely.

If you lecture your child about breaking an established rule or doing something downright dumb or unkind, they're going to have a pretty good idea of how you feel about their actions before you even open your mouth. They may themselves already feel bad about the action in question, or they may disagree with your imposed rules and think they did nothing wrong — but if you're a parent who regularly has real conversations with your kids, they do know where you stand. 

Parental lectures can also be pretty stressful for children, and research shows that stress kind of causes the brain switch off, interfering with the inability to retain information. I have a pretty open relationship with my kids, and asked them to describe what's going on in their heads when I do lecture. My son readily admitted to simply "tuning out", among other reasons because I go on too long and because he already knows what I'm going to say anyway. 

Do parental lectures have a negative impact on children? 

If you engage in this practice only very occasionally and also employ more constructive techniques, the answer is probably "not really". One research paper included lecturing under the heading "unilateral punitive strategies", however, and showed that relying on them as a parenting technique decreases academic achievement, and that they are especially harmful for younger adolescents. This is because lectures:

  • Focus on getting children to do what you want them to do, rather than on teaching them to engage in thought processes that lead them to decide what is right and wrong independently. 
  • Belittle the child, assuming they're an inferior recipient of your supposed wisdom — something that can make your child feel incompetent or simply angry, neither of which are things that instill a burning desire to change their behavior or make up for already committed poor behavior. 

What can you do instead of lecturing?

How you handle your parenting is going to depend on your family culture and personal philosophy, of course. A guiding principle, however, is this. Don't engage in monologues — have conversations. 

Conversations are not always necessary. To be frank, half the time I do stoop to lecture level, a simple "that wasn't cool; don't do that" would have sufficed. I'm talking about stuff like a child getting out of doing the washing up seven days in a row, or purposely playing music that their sibling hates. This "small stuff" is probably also the context in which lecturing is least harmful. You're just being a bore, nothing more and nothing less. 

When it comes to serious matters, like, say, drug abuse, bullying, or shoplifting, it's more important to exercise some parental self-control and avoid the lecturing. I'll finish off with a story to demonstrate what I mean. When I was about 10, my best friend and I broke a bunch of tiles a neighbor had planned to use to make a garden path. We did it on a dare. It was dumb. The neighbor in question caught us, made us come into her home, and phoned my friend's parents (I was having a sleep-over there). 

Our parents weren't exactly rich and can't have relished the thought of having to pay for replacements. We dreaded what would happen when we returned to her home, and fully expected a long lecture, yelling included. Instead, her dad was gentle and compassionate. He said something like, "well, that was dumb" — and then waited for us to start talking. We felt bad about what we did and about getting caught, and we said so. He then asked how we were planning to make things right. We ended up doing chores to make money to pay for the broken tiles for quite a while, which we hand-delivered to the neighbor.

My friend's dad listened. He was nice about it. He acknowledged that everyone does dumb things but emphasized that we could learn from this incident and make amends. He was a source of comfort, rather than fear or anger, and the way he handled us meant the focus was, in our minds, on the bad thing we'd done rather than on the harsh way we were treated after. It was the right approach — because it was so much more effective than a lecture could ever have been. Be like my childhood friend's dad. Don't lecture. Have conversations. 

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