MOM: What happened at school today?
MOM: What do you like about your favorite book?
CHILD: I don’t know.
MOM: How was your day?
Do the conversations in your household ever sound like this dialogue? Do you, like me, long for something more substantive in your relationship with your child? Do you worry about keeping communication lines open and available as your children age and as life issues become more complex?
Truth be told, I have been thinking about this topic since my kids were very young. Sometimes my preschool-aged children would answer my questions with terse replies. I feared that we would turn into those dysfunctional families from 1980s movies. You know the type – the totally clueless parents who are disconnected from the wild/lonely/troubled/deceitful teenagers who live their own lives behind locked doors.
So I tried more open-ended questions.
MOM: Tell Mommy a high and a low from your day.
MOM: Who did you sit next to at lunch?
Sound of CRICKETS heard off-screen.
As a mom, I want to know what excites or worries my child, or what my child wonders about. It seems natural to crave an emotional relationship with my child, and conversation is part of the process of developing trust in that relationship.
And, I also recognize that I am not a peer or a friend to my child. And there’s a fine line between trying to be your child’s buddy and wanting to be a safe space for processing life together. I am not in my children’s peer groups, so I do not need to know who likes or doesn’t like whom or what they think about certain teachers or pop stars; however, I do want to know what makes them laugh or what piques their curiosity. I do not need to be my child’s only deep relationship, but I do want to play my part as a caring and connected parent.
As parents, how do we encourage conversation with our children – no matter their ages? How do we keep open lines of communication so that, as they age, we stay connected as a safe and trustworthy ally?
We shouldn’t overthink communication with our children. Consider what makes you more willing to share with and trust someone in a conversation. Most of us desire space where we can be heard and not immediately judged, where we can share our concerns but not be rushed into a solution. So, here are a few tips to create hospitable places for conversations with our kiddos.
Good conversations require some concentration. Put the phone down. Don’t look at the calendar and where you have to be next. If you really want to know how your child’s day was, make sure you have the time to listen to her answer.
Paying attention doesn’t mean you can’t be doing something with your child while talking. In fact, many people find this type of activity most conducive to a chat. You do not have to be eye-to-eye to talk about things that matter. Do a craft together, color, toss the ball, or take a walk. Sometimes conversation is easier when you are not having a heart-to-heart at the kitchen table, but are simply being open to conversation in your daily routines, even while in the car.
You might also look for opportunities for good quality time. Prioritize family dinners. Put some conversation cards in the middle of the table. Go on a camp-out. Take your kid out to eat. Tuck him in at night. Make yourself available.
Let your children know that you hear what they say. Empathize with whatever it is they are thinking or feeling, even if you don’t quite relate. Everyone wants to feel understood. Say things like, “That sounds difficult,” or, “I can see how you might feel that way.”
Empathizing is not patronizing; it is affirmation of another’s experience. While it may be appropriate to brainstorm solutions to problems with your child as his or her parent, keep in mind that you are not your child’s therapist. Be an empathetic parent who has appropriate boundaries.
Perhaps true for any parenting scenario – it’s not what we say, it’s what we do that matters the most and speaks the loudest. Be vulnerable, and model healthy communication with your spouse. Share about your day, highs and lows included, with your children. Be who you want them to become.
All mothers want to be a safe place for their children to process their thoughts and feelings, at ages four, 14, or 24. True, children are at different emotional and developmental capabilities depending on their age, personality, and ability. What we can do as mothers is be open to wherever our children are with open ears, arms, and hearts.
What are your communication tips?