It seems everywhere today, from tv news, to print, and even sit-coms, parents are being offered advice on how to talk to their kids. This advice usually comes with an agenda. How to talk to your kids so they’ll listen to you; so they’ll tell you what they’re up to; so they’ll take you seriously; so you can keep them safe; how to get them to do what you tell them and not do what you tell them not to do; how to get them to be respectful, honest, ambitious, successful, well-behaved and so on.
Growing up, one thing I heard from my Mom, which she reports hearing from her grandfather was “Talk to kids from the moment they’re born, and talk to them like they’re people.” (Which goes far to explain why we’re such a family of talkers.) My Mom did talk to us a lot. Too often, though, her words left us feeling inadequate, misunderstood, sometimes even threatened. She, too, had an agenda. Later I learned her agenda was one of fear; fear that manifested as a requirement that we obey, so she could be sure we’d listen to her as she tried to keep us safe in a world she found dangerous.
I realize now, 26 years into my own journey of talking to my kids, that culturally we are programmed to be afraid as parents. We’re told we need to fear that our kids will have sex in dangerous ways, drink, smoke or use drugs. We’re told to expect that they will lie to us to cover their misdeeds. We’re told those are the things kids do, especially when peer pressure kicks in during the school years, becoming worse once they’re teenagers.
There’s a general expectation that talking to your kids is full of “hard” conversations. When I hear a news story about talking to your kid about drugs or sex or some other scary topic, my first thought is always “Why is it such a hard conversation?” Why is any conversation hard to have with your kids? I think it’s because so much of the parenting advice we hear tells us we need to control our kids, that we are “their parent, not their friend”. How can you as a parent have a true conversation, one in which you hope to impart what matters to you, when you’ve been told you shouldn’t be your child’s friend? Why would a child listen to his parents when he’s afraid of the reaction to his heartfelt words and desires, should he share them with Mom or Dad?
As a mom, I talk about so many things with my kids, and yes some of them might surprise me or be a little uncomfortable initially, but why really should any one topic be more difficult than another? Is it true for everyone, that the same topics are hard to discuss with a child or teen? In some families, it’s hard to talk to your kids about sex, in others it may be smoking, drinking, drug use, responsible driving, healthy eating habits, relationships, dating choices, friends, social behavior. It seems parenting throws at us most of our own personal bugaboos, and often we find that the very topics we may be uncomfortable with are the ones our kids bring to us. I’ve come to view these as learning moments; or maybe they’re just regular reminders that the universe has a sense of humor.
I think part of the difficulty we have in talking with our kids starts in how we talk about our kids. Our larger culture — schools, news stories, grandparents, friends and neighbors — seems intent on pointing out the harder parts of being a parent. Stories of parents who have good relationships with their kids don’t make good fodder for the evening news, so we don’t often hear about them. Quick conversations with neighbors seem more often to be a recitation of the latest woes with the kids; how poorly one is doing in school, the latest argument that baffled the parent, the call from the school reporting of a fight or rule-breaking. I find in casual conversation with other parents, at sporting events, around the neighborhood and the like, that it’s rare anyone says how wonderfully their kids are doing, and when they do, they often follow up with a disclaimer of sorts, as if they’re uncomfortable singing their child’s praises.
Maybe it’s simply that many people are struggling and they want to feel some kinship by sharing war stories. I have to ask, though, does it really serve our kids, or us, to share only our war stories? Would I want to hear Gary sharing a recitation of all the things I’d failed to do right in the past week? How many times I hadn’t folded the laundry, or had lost my temper?
I want my kids to hear me talking about the cool, exciting, happy stuff they’re doing. When others share their woes, I offer some sympathy, then try to find something positive to say about their child, or offer encouragement and ideas that I think might help.
It really does make a difference to talk to and about our kids the same way we’d talk about our friends or partners, to use words that say we love them, we empathize with their struggles, and we know their worth.
Written with love, by Sylvia Toyama© 2011 An Unschooling Life