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Parent Articles


Use Surprise Talk Effectively

By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller


John Clayton received a call from his son's principal the fourth week of his fifth-grade year. "Sammy is in my office," said the administrator. "He used the F-word in class and I've suspended him for two days. Please come and get him as soon as possible."

John had a thirty-minute drive from work to the elementary school where the incident occurred. Although he thought about it the entire time, he had reached no decision about what to do or say to his son by the time he pulled into the parking lot.

Not having any clear directions about what to say or do, John remained silent when his son got in the car. After several miles had passed, Sammy asked, "Did you hear what I said in class?" "Yep," replied the disappointed father. "What are you going to do about it?" queried Sammy. That's when this parent used "surprise talk" to clearly communicate how he viewed his son.

"I'm not sure what I'm going to do," John said. "Actually, I'm too stunned to react right now. The whole incident has taken me by surprise. It's not anything I ever expected so I need to think about it awhile. We can talk about it after dinner tonight when I've had time to process it a bit."

What this father did by using surprise talk was let his son know he did not see him as someone who would use inappropriate language in school. In fact, the behavior was so unexpected that he didn't have a plan in place for how to deal with it. The real message he sent his son was, "I don't expect that type of behavior from you."

Some parents and teachers use surprise talk to communicate negative expectations.
"Got in trouble again, eh? I'm not surprised." "Didn't do your chores? I might have expected that from you." "I could have predicted you were the one that started the argument."

When you use surprise talk, you are communicating expectations. One of the best things you can do for your child or student is to expect their success and communicate that to them.