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Show Not Tell

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (March 16, 2017)

I was recently at a charity dinner for an organisation that helps people in Africa with restoring their sight. The stories shared were touching, the videos were moving but perhaps what was most impactful was when they invited the dinner guests to blindfold themselves with the blindfolds and eat a course of their dinner. It’s one thing to observe a person’s situation; it’s another to step into a person’s situation.

We watched as our friends around the dinner table tried to figure out which piece of cutlery to pick up, how to find the food on the plate and when to know when the food was finished. Things that we usually take for granted had become challenges because of taking away one thing – our sight. And at that moment, we could empathise with what those people in Africa go through, though on a much smaller scale, and understand the impact of giving back sight to them.

To show someone what it feels like to be in a situation is far more impactful than just telling them about it.

And that’s true about any experience. It’s one thing to tell a child it hurts to fall down, it’s another for him to know that it hurts after falling. And of course we don’t want our children to have to experience everything before learning but sometimes it’s necessary.

The instinct of a parent is to protect a child and sometimes, that means protecting them from the consequences they need to face and to learn from. I’ve met so many parents who sit next to their children to do homework and make sure their final submission is perfect so that the child doesn’t get red marks in her assignment. But sometimes the best way to get a child motivated to work hard is for her to see those red marks that show her what she needs to work on. We can tell her it’s important to work hard but when she faces the consequences of not doing so, that’s when it’s powerful.

A parent recently shared with me how her son was always late for school and made his parents wait for him in the car as he continued getting ready. Him being late not only affected himself but also his parents and his little sister in being late for their work and school too. The parents kept on telling him how he needed to be on time, how he wasn’t considerate of their schedules, how he wasn’t being responsible in getting to class on time. It didn’t work on speeding him up. Then one day, the dad tried another method after being frustrated for so long. He said that if his son isn’t on time in leaving the house that day, he would leave without him and he’d have to walk to school (albeit school is within walking distance!). His son was once again late and this time, no one waited for him. He begrudgingly had to walk to school that day, arriving sweaty and late but having learnt an important lesson. He was shown the consequence of his actions and not just told what he should do. His dad told me that his son was never late for school again.

Many times, parents tell me how they feel that they are always nagging their children and that their children even tell them that they ‘talk too much’ but if we can give our children experiences that show them what they should do, and not just for us to tell them what they should do, the impact is often more great and lasting.

But the most important part of ‘show not tell’ is that as adults, we are showing our children what they should do and how they should act by the example we lead. We should ‘walk the walk’ and not let our children think that they should ‘do what we say, not what we do’. They are watching the way we speak, the way we act, the way we express our emotions, the choices we make. If what we show them and what we tell them is contrary to each other, then we have lost credibility in our lesson. So as we show our children what they should do, let’s show them how they should live by the example we lead.


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