6 Steps For Teaching Grandkids Rational Thinking

A sense of humor and flexibility in attitude and behaviors are two signs of good mental health. These two traits can be developed in youngsters from the age of 1 year on up, and can be fairly well established (or not) by age 6.

I’ve been asked to comment on some of the ways I’ve tried to teach Rational Thinking to my granddaughters. I have two: Jane, a dark-haired beauty who is 11; and Kathryn, a blue-eyed blonde bundle of energy who is 6. Perhaps being a licensed professional who has worked with literally hundreds of parents and children was also a factor, but I doubt it. It has to be simply because the granddaughters seem to be on track.

Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy is the psychological theory in which I was trained. In a nutshell, it stresses the importance of thinking and reasoning, and how that causes a person to feel and/or behave. It stresses the importance of Self-Acceptance vs. Self-Rating, avoiding overgeneralizations, and the use of Preferential Thinking vs. Demand Thinking (see REBTNetwork.org for more information).

Here are six steps of many that I use with my granddaughters. But, before the first one was born, I got my son and his wife to sign an affidavit that did not require me to be the typical grandfather. Foolishly, they agreed.

1. Practice Rational Thinking yourself. For the first year and a half of each granddaughter’s life, they totally ignored me. They were “Gammy’s” shadows. Anytime I came near, it was “talk to my hand,” and a hand was literally put in my face. Luckily, I can handle rejection, so I left my ego out of it, and felt confident that sooner or later they would discover the joys of being around “Gran’fatha” (said with a Mary Poppins accent. It’s true; that is how they address me, usually followed by a giggle). Sure enough, it happened, and now I can’t shake the little shadows.

2. Columbo before Rambo. The type of delivery chosen helps keep a granddaughter’s ears open, mind open and at semi-full attention, whether being praised or corrected. I’ve always recommended the low-key Columbo approach (I don’t know anything; I’m dumb like a fox). I figure once I go postal on someone (Rambo), I can’t take it back. It is OK by me if I’m considered the dumbest person in the room because, that way, I’m the least threatening. Everyone wants to be the fastest gun; no one wants to be the slowest. Kids love to teach adults…even when the adult is teaching.

3. Have a sense of humor and use it! “When I was a little girl…” starts many of my corrective interactions. Or, “When your daddy was a little girl…” My use of humor gets and keeps their attention. The idea is to do what it takes to communicate. The grandparent is older, wiser and more mature. That is never up for debate. So, when the 3-year-old tells you a gorilla came in through the window and spilled her milk, and that she didn’t do it, avoid the debate and the urge to get a confession. Instead, try something like, “Well, that dumb gorilla didn’t clean it up very well, so I guess we had better. And by the way, what are you going to do so he doesn’t spill your milk again?”

4. Have a variety of responses. Avoid the usual clichés your parents said to you. Be creative and come up with some new ones. When I was told, “Ha, ha! I’m first!” my response was, “Ha, ha, back! I’m SECOND and proud of it.” I can make “last” seem so wonderful that when she isn’t first, it isn’t the end of the world that requires a two-day sulk. I also like open-ended questions. (“Well, could there be any other reason why your little sister teases you besides being the biggest brat in the world?”) If no other theories are forthcoming, I’ll toss out a few. (“Could it be because she wants to be like you? Maybe she is jealous? Maybe she is just trying to get your attention because you’re important to her?”) Of course they get denied, but the seed is planted. I’ve seen both granddaughters self-correct their theories.

5. Translate. “She shouldn’t have done that!” becomes, “Yep, it would have been better if she didn’t.” “She must stop taking my stuff without permission!” becomes, “I agree it would be nice if she asked first. What can we do to make that happen?” When one blames someone or something for making them feel sad or frustrated, I ask her, “How did you get that reaction?” And no matter what the answer is, I suggest to them what they might have been thinking. (“Oh, you thought she HAS TO be fair. Well, wouldn’t that be nice.”)

I’ll also ask “what if” questions, such as “What if you laughed instead, or walked away, or…?” The purpose is to help her see she has some control over her reaction, and can change it. She doesn’t have to automatically respond the same way every time. That information has probably been the most helpful to the kids I’ve worked with, and probably the most appreciated in the long run.

6. Enjoy them!  They are only this impressionable once. I’ve often said that once they get to first or second grade, they think they are too “sophisticated” to appreciate my nonsense. Now when I say, “When I was a little girl…,” the 11-year-old rolls her eyes. Luckily, she plays along with my nonsense with the younger one, and seems to like being in on it.

Just for the record, I don’t buy my granddaughters’ love and attention. I’ve only ever been to a fast-food place once with them, because I was hungry. And, I’m seeing from both a strong sense of confidence, a great sense of humor and good flexibility in thinking. That affidavit has paid off.

Dr. John Yurick is a marriage and family therapist in Florida. He has written several books, dozens of magazine articles, conducted seminars throughout the world and had a syndicated radio show from 1977 to 1982 as the Radio Rational Therapist. He has been married for more than 40 years, has three grown children, two granddaughters…and a young Border Collie who is smarter than he is and proves it every day.

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