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How to Teach Someone a Lesson

Warning: What they learn might disappoint you.

Key points

  • People who try to teach others lessons about their behavior only manage to point to their own.
  • The most effective way to teach is to model the desired behavior.
  • Ultimately, love is the best teacher.
Kontrec/CanvaPro
Source: Kontrec/CanvaPro

When I was a kid, I remember watching as a neighborhood boy was chased out of his house by his mother.

She ran after him, shouting, “I’ll teach you to back-talk me!”

I was confused.

Surely, this boy already knew how to talk back to his mother. Wasn’t that why she was chasing him?

My confusion was based on a quirk of linguistics. But teaching someone a lesson is not a straightforward idea, regardless of how we talk about it.

Shame on Them

Have you ever felt mistreated by someone behaving badly, and wished you could teach them a lesson?

Invariably, the lessons we aspire to teach people are ones that would make them feel ashamed and contrite.

If someone is rude, we want them to realize how rude they are and start behaving differently. Preferably after apologizing.

If that person took us for granted, violated our boundaries or flouted accepted norms, we want them to not only understand but deeply regret the error of their ways.

In short, when we’re unhappy with someone, we relish the idea of teaching them a lesson.

It would feel so good if it worked. But somehow, it never does.

Lessons That Stick

The harder we try to teach people lessons, the more they seem to dig their heels in. Bad behavior stays the same or gets worse.

Why do our lessons fail?

When we set out to teach someone a lesson, they do learn something. But it’s rarely what we’re trying to teach them.

We want them to learn about themselves — especially the ways in which they’re bad or wrong.

But all they seem to learn is that we are critical, judgmental, passive-aggressive or uptight. Even if we don't have any of those character flaws, that's what they'll see.

Because people don’t take our lessons as being about them, but about us!

Let’s say you’re nearing the end of your life and you’re writing a will. You have relative who’s been estranged from you for years, and you’re thinking of leaving him nothing.

The last time you spoke, this relative was critical and said he wanted nothing more to do with you.

As you write him out of your will, you might think, "This will teach him. He’ll wish he’d been nicer to me."

You could get a bit of satisfaction from the thought that he’ll regret his past behavior toward you. Maybe after you’re gone, he’ll think about all that he lost by removing you from his life.

But the lesson won’t be learned. Being left out of your will isn’t likely to strike this relative as a reflection on him. Instead, he’ll say, “My relative was a horrible person. Cutting me out of the will just proves it.”

By trying to teach him a lesson about himself, you've reinforced his negative story about you.

It’s a terrible paradox: The more we try to redress injuries to ourselves by holding up a mirror to others, the less we look like victims and the more we’re seen as perpetrators.

Be the Change

So what’s the solution? Should we just accept whatever poor treatment comes our way and never ask for better? Only a doormat acts like that.

For me, the answer comes back to the immortal advice of Mohandas Gandhi: Be the change you wish to see in the world.

I once had a friend who was passionately against littering. To reduce littering in her community, she tried to shame anyone she saw doing it.

It never went well. She always felt awful after those interactions, and presumably, the people she confronted did as well.

Eventually, she realized that she could have a bigger impact by simply picking up the trash she saw people drop, and disposing of it properly.

Although it felt unfair at first, she came to understand that even if the litterbugs themselves didn’t see her picking up after them, other people would. And they would learn from her to pick up trash.

A potential litterbug bystander might observe my friend’s act of service, and think twice about littering. Or maybe they would do what she was doing, for someone else.

Because of my friend’s example, littering would decrease in her community — which was exactly what she wanted.

Teach Love

If you would like certain people to be more respectful, consider the level of your respect for them. How are you demonstrating that?

If you would like others to be friendly and welcoming, think about how often you reach out to others.

If you want someone to forgive your human frailty, can you show them how to do that by forgiving them first?

Instead of teaching lessons, teach love. Not only does it feel good to both of you, it actually works.

People behave better when they’re given room to reflect; when they’re shown better examples; and when they’re assumed to be good — in other words, when they’re loved.

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