The Personalist Project

I used to think you could never have too many teachable moments. The more it dawned on me what a superhuman responsibility I had taken on as a mother (not to mention a homeschooling one), the more  convinced I became that I'd better get double the milage out of every chance occurrence. Just living life in common with the objects of my educational efforts, I figured, would be a failure of efficiency. 

But I was missing the point. I've come to believe that when you self-consciously try to turn everything into a teachable moment, you insert yourself between your child--or other chosen target--and the reality. And you twist, or falsify, your personal interactions.

Some examples (and counterexamples) of what I mean:

My mother read all eight of us kids all seven Chronicles of Narnia. (It's not that my father didn't read to us: he just stuck to The Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, and War and Peace). Never a quiz, never a worksheet. She just read the whole series over and over--because even after we big kids had heard them all, she'd need to start over for the ones who'd been too little to understand during the last cycle, and then again for those who hadn't been born yet.

Then we grew up and read them again to ourselves, and then to our own kids. We internalized them more thorougly than any enforced edification could have accomplished.

Much later, I met the only person I've ever known who disliked Narnia. His father had read the whole series out loud, too, but interspersed with incessant and wholesome commentary on the allegory, the moral of the story, and why it would behoove them to be more like Lucy and less like Edmund.

I knew the man, and he certainly didn't lack for dedication to his children, fatherly love, intellectual gifts, or good intentions.

But it backfired. They still overdosed on teachable moments.

So that's the pragmatic problem: it may not work. Once someone gets the idea that, for you, everything is a pretext for cramming education into him, he may take a dislike not only to education itself but to the very writers and artists and principles you want him to hold most dear.

And there's something more deeply wrong with the whole approach. It betrays a distrust of the power of truth, a belief that it needs to be belabored. At the very least, it betrays a lack of confidence in your children (or in whomever you're trying to edify). If instead you can manage to communicate confidence that they're capable of benefitting without being hit over the head, your chances of success are far greater. 

Besides, overdosing on teachable moments falsifies the person-to-person relationship. It treats the person as a generic receptacle for truth. It makes impossible the experience of friendship: standing side by side, gazing at the same truth together.You're not contemplating the truth yourself--too busy trying to make sure the other doesn't miss it. Nor are you letting him contemplate for himself, since you insist on shoving yourself in as mediator.

This is true, I think, whether the subject in question is religious or not, but especially if it is. If you believe, for example, that the Mass is what the Church teaches it is, you may be anxious to leave nothing to chance, reducing yourself to a pusher of teachable moments.

Not everybody makes this mistake. As my sister Simcha Fisher recalls, she noticed something odd about going to mass with our mother:

My mother would answer me any time I called her name, any time at all, except during the consecration and elevation.  I remember being very young and being baffled that she didn’t seem to hear me when her head was bowed.  Eventually I figured it out!

I remember that when I catch myself turning the liturgy into a nag-a-thon for the child I'm sitting next to. Instead of parallel contemplation of Jesus in the tabernacle, it's  critiques of kneeling technique ("Tushy up!") or corrections ("Quiet! This is the most important part!"). On a really bad day, I'm liable to launch into a lengthy whispered speech about the distinction between worshipping God and sitting there passively like a guy watching baseball in his living room.

If I would cut it out, we could be side by side, responding to something together. Or not. But if a genuine response did arise, it would come from within the child himself--something very different from a reaction to my hectoring.

I don't think there's anything wrong with a quick, whispered "Here comes Jesus!" at the consecration--but much more than that, and things get self-defeating pretty fast. Instruction doesn't have to be neglected, but it has a time and a place.

Because there's such a thing as too much efficiency.

Comments (3)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Oct 10, 2015 10:58pm

I like this. I think you're right that sometimes our "teachable moments" can get in the way of just experiencing something with the people we love. And there's also something troubling about looking at beautiful things or works of art--or even people--and seeing primarily (or so it appears to the listener) how they can be used to drive home a lesson.  

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Oct 11, 2015 7:02am

There's also the fact that the teaching mode can drive out the learning mode. Leave the child alone, and she might discover and share something about Narnia you hadn't thought of. Or she might experience and express the same idea in a fresh way, thereby showing new light on it.  

Devra Torres

#3, Oct 12, 2015 10:27pm

Kate, yes--I think it's just harder to see in the case of interacting with one's own child, since after all we are supposed to teach them and instruct them about all kinds of things--the tendency is to imagine: the more, the better!

Jules, that's a good point, and I think it's very telling that it didn't even occur to me!

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