Young children have no filter.
“I have to poop!”
“I have to pee!”
“I just hit my brother but he hit me first!”
And (cue eyeroll) my favorite — “It’s almost time for my alarm to go off so I can get my juice,” said by a wide-awake 4-year-old to his bleary-eyed father before sunup.
For the most part, the quaint questions and statements are benign. They can become tiresome, especially the minute-by-minute updates of our children’s excretory system.
“You don’t need to tell us that you have to pee. Just go to the bathroom and do it.”
But we have conditioned them from an early age to tell us everything.
“Why is your brother crying?”
“How do you feel about your new friend?”
“Tell me all about your day at school.”
We want, need and demand that our children tell us everything they think and feel. Are they upset with someone at school? Is a kid in the neighborhood bullying them? Are they excited about an upcoming trip the family is taking? We validate their feelings and encourage them to speak to us openly. Sure, there are moments of oversharing or — in the case of my 4-year-old, an elaborate recitation of every episode of “Octonauts” he’s ever watched — but we sit and listen to him with the rapt attention of someone engaged in a vigorous and lively debate because we want our children to know that their experiences and thoughts matter.
However, we know that this type of open communication will likely not continue. Our kids will grow up, become teenagers and hide their innermost thoughts from us. Sad, isn’t it? When they still need us to give them insight or guidance, advice or just an ear, our kids — on many occasions — will shun us and think they can solve or sort out their crises on their own.
My goal is break that trend. And I think we can do it in four ways.
1). Stay engaged. What are our kids up to? Where are the popular hangouts? Who are they hanging out with? What music are they listening to? What movies and websites are they watching? I don’t believe it’s necessarily important for us to engage them about those things — “Hey, kiddo. How about that new Drake album?” — because it might come off seeming corny and cause our kids to question our motives. But it’s critical to know what they’re into and if they won’t tell us, then we have the right, I think, to snoop. The times, bands, bars, hangouts and clothes have changed but the attitudes and desires haven’t. Kids want to fit in. They want to date, be popular, have fun, push boundaries. We can anticipate what’s going on in our children’s lives by remembering our own youth and showing them that we’re interested in their lives and opinions.
2). Ask questions. Many young people don’t want to share their thoughts and feelings so they keep their thoughts to themselves. “Well, I don’t want to pry,” think some parents. Baloney. These are our children. They live under our roof. They ask us for money and expect rides to their activities. It is part of parenting to give them privacy. It is also part of parenting to understand where the boundaries of privacy end. If there is behavior occurring that is questionable, ask about it. If there are comments being made that are concerning, ask about them. If there are odd hours being kept, suspicious friends hanging around and a change in attitude, ask about it. It’s not prying. It’s parenting.
3). Don’t let them slide. Teenagers are infamous for one-word answers. Don’t let them off that easy. Their behavior might not just be a phase. It might be a cause for genuine concern and your interest and questioning might provide them a level of trust to open up to you. Part of the battle is simply to show our children through our words and actions that we are interested in them and will make time for them.
4). Nothing is off-limits. I have an aunt who has two grown sons and she has managed to maintain open communication with her children their entire lives. She told me that her youngest son trusted her so much that he would describe for her the intimate moments of his life, including his sexual partners. She listened, politely asked questions and did what is nearly impossible to do — did not make overt or snap judgments on his behavior. If we want our children to trust us with their fears and failures, their crushes and desires, then we must prove to them that we will be receptive and not demand that they bend to our beliefs, no matter how awkward the topic.
For my wife and I, all of this is far off in the future. We cannot imagine that day now because our boys at still at an age where we can ask for — and receive — a kiss or hug from them at school or at church or the grocery store — without a moment’s hesitation. I cherish that and revel in the fact that whenever I come home from work, I get a hero’s welcome as if I’d been away for months and my boys had been counting down the hours until I arrived.
But I think about our communication with our boys because I know that the foundation we create now of openness, honesty and trust will carry over for decades to come. As they grow up, our sons may no longer announce with great fanfare when they have to poop. But if they want to, that’s fine with us.
(Photo credit: Wiertz Sébastien / Foter / CC BY)