by michael on December 22, 2010

Analyzing the Content of Words

“Don’t lecture me!” “Here comes another lecture from mom!” “You’re just going to give me a lecture!” We parents hear phrases like these from time to time; sometimes more than from time to time. Sometimes our children spit out these or similar phrases like charred popcorn kernels. What should parents do? How should a parent analyze the child’s message and what would be a well-crafted response?

This morning I visited a colleague working at Colorado Parent (, a marvelous guide for addressing the seemingly infinite array of issues that confront parents. The magazine is free, and reaches over 140,000 people in the Denver metro area. Our discussion meandered from topic to topic taking unexpected turns like linguini on a plate. My friend shared how she tries to instill dominant ethical principles and values in her children by sharing her thoughts of and evaluations of issues, events, people and so forth. The mom then repeated a response made not infrequently by one or more of her children: “Mom, there you go, giving me another lecture.”

Another lecture! Well, well, well. Words have content, which is to say, they have an ethos, or a character. A word can mean or denote something specific, but it can also connote or suggest something beyond the literal meaning. My points can be easily understood when I analyze ‘lecture. ’

As a noun, ‘lecture’ has specific meanings. It can be a speech or a presentation made to an audience for instruction or motivation or inspiration—a lecture on art history, a lecture by a president in time of war. As a noun, a lecture can also be a warning or a reprimand—the judge lectured the defendant before imposing a sentence; the dad lectured his child on the dangers of lighting matches in the home. The word can also be a verb—to lecture someone on a subject.

But the word ‘lecture’ has meaning or an ethos beyond the definition words. A lecture implies or suggests an inequality of power—the person giving the lecture has more power or authority than the targeted audience. The word can also carry a hint of condescension—the judge lecturing a criminal, the teacher speaking down to a student or a parent diminishing the maturity of the child.

I confess I don’t know if this mom speaks to her children in a way that has any negative connotation. Either the mom does or she does not. Giving her the benefit of the doubt after speaking at length, most likely she does not. But, as a matter of logic, either the mom does or she does not lecture.

Let’s take a look at the child’s response. “You’re always lecturing me!” ‘Here comes another lecture.” And so forth. Not how the child uses the word: if the mom is not lecturing, then the child is mischaracterizing the mom’s words, and at the stage of being a teenager, a mischaracterization is most likely intentional. However, the mom could be lecturing the child in a way that has a hint of arrogance or overbeating attitude. Maybe or maybe not.

But there’s more to the issue regarding the attitude of the child. The child is using the word ‘lecture’ as if it were a fire extinguisher, trying to smother the ideas or advice or instruction from the mom. The word ‘lecture’ is used to end the discussion; to discount its value, to diminish its propriety. Of course there are worse things in the world than being the target of a lecture, but more importantly, whether or not the mom is lecturing, the child, by using that word, shuts down the legitimacy of the source of the words.

I had lunch today with Bob Schram. Bob designed my book cover and did the interior design of the text. I share that every recipient of my book, without exception, extolled the quality and creativity of Bob’s work. I recommend him to anyone contemplating publishing a book or for any related design needs. His company is Bookkends Publication Design, email:, We visited so I could give Bob a few copies of my book, shake his hand and tell him what a great job he did and to give him some lovely wine—a Sicilian red and a French chardonnay. Very nice!

I shared with Bob the ‘lecture’ part of my discussion with my colleague at Colorado Parent. Bob voiced perspectives that caused me to reflect. “Every generation,” he said, “is approachable in a different way—Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y. Words mean different things at different times.” I interpreted Bob’s words to mean that words should be understood in a common and shared context. To approach children, in this case, the skill was to elevate communicating to persuading, and to do so in a way that would cause or allow the audience, the child, to be receptive to the message.

Persuasion, of course, is the essence of the art of rhetoric. If the mom were lecturing, that technique of communicating would not find a receptive audience. Indeed, the audience—the child—shuts down like a three-week-old soufflé. A remedy for this situation is self-analysis, introspection and adjustment by the parent. Stop lecturing. Find another method by which to communicate the parent’s message to the child.

But if the parent truly is not lecturing, another strategy for reaching or approaching or persuading the child must be employed. This requires thought and finesse. The parent must have the insight to grasp that it is being manipulated. The parent must understand that the child is using words—rhetoric—to avoid discussion or to trivialize the message and thereby justify ignoring it.

I discussed my analysis and these strategies with the mom at Colorado Parent. We thought of a few rhetorical solutions a parent could use. It may be effective, for example, for the mom to say something blunt and straightforward by expressing ideas such as these: Every form of talking is not lecturing. Every instance of sharing ideas is not lecturing. Parents have a moral duty to talk with their children in order to educate and guide them to the best of the parent’s ability. It is unfair for the child to wrongfully accuse the parent of lecturing and thereby dismiss the parent’s words. And, finally, the parent can inquire of the child how the child would like to be talked to so that the child will not accuse the parent of lecturing.

It is important for the parent to reach the child and have its message understood. It is also important that the child not use unfair or dishonest rhetoric to avoid talking with the parent or to diminish the parent’s words. Chirping out the word “You’re just lecturing” like a parrot may be commonly used but it is an unfair avoidance technique. Words have power. Words have meaning. Words can be used fairly or unfairly. This mom’s unplanned and unfiltered comment not only illuminated a critical point for conversing with children but also could enable a constructive conversation to occur with her child.
More later.

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