Me: “Hi son, how was school today?”
Me: “Did you have fun?”
Me: “What sort of things did you learn about?”
In my head: Gasp! A word! A real english word!
Me: “Ok, well glad we could have this talk about your day!”
Does that sound familiar to you? Are my children the strange ones that don’t pontificate in prose about their every emotion and thought? I mean, they talk. A lot actually. But never about the things I want them to talk about. We could talk for hours with them asking me questions like:
“Mom, who invented the screwdriver?”
“Mom, when was the first cake baked?”
“Mom, who first said the word, ‘Awesome’?”
“Mom, is Michael Jackson really a man or are you lying to me?”
(Actual questions from this past year)
You know, basically an endless list of questions that I have no answer for.
I’m a bit of a determined bull-dog though. When there is an area that I’m frustrated with or feel like it could just be better I get dialed in and focused. I become determined to figure out how to draw out my boys.
These past three years I’ve been on this path to find ways to more deeply connect, with actual words, to my sons. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way (through a lot of trial and error).
Timing can be everything.
Here is something that should come with our children’s instruction manual.
Section 4: Your child shall be virtually mute with the exception of inaudible mumbles for a minimum of 45 minutes after departing the school grounds.
Section 5: Each school day shall be described as either, a.) fine or b.) good. Just accept it. During this 45 minute time period they will remember absolutely nothing that happened during the school day since they did nothing according to your child’s steel trap memory.”
This may be extreme, some children love to talk about the school day the moment they see Mom or Dad. The rest of us should accept that walking out of school and having to be interrogated by Mom is just not nice.
Timing can be everything. Sometimes kids don’t talk because we ask them at all the wrong times.
I had to figure out the times my boys feel relaxed and ready to talk and seize those moments. For us, laying in bed at the end of the day is a really good time. We normally do a devotional or read a chapter from a book. It never fails, they start bringing up all sorts of things that they have kept inside the rest of the day. It doesn’t matter to me when they talk, just as long as we are talking. I know now, a silent car ride home is kind of nice for them after a busy school day. I get that and it’s now fine with me too.
Talk shoulder to shoulder instead of face to face.
This is like a sneak attack basically. I’m a woman, so generally I like to sit, look at my friend and then commence pouring our hearts out. Children, and especially boys I think, generally aren’t this way. (Also true for men but that’s another blog post!)
It can actually be intimidating to have their parent stare deeply in their eyes and ask questions.
Once I realised that my timing was not my sons timing I started to look for other moments. Doing something together (shoulder to shoulder) can create great opportunities. If I want to hear from one of my boys, I will ask them to join me on a project or I join them on something they love.
Today, I invited my youngest to cook breakfast for the family. He jumped at the chance. As we were working together making eggs I took over one of his “jobs”. “Mom! I’m supposed to crack the eggs!”. Without looking at him I just casually said, “Oh man, I’m sorry… I do that a lot don’t I? Just take over like that”. He didn’t miss a beat, “Yep, just yesterday you did the same thing with fixing my toy!” He started to giggle and laugh that we were pointing at Mom’s mistakes. I didn’t mind at all, it was all true!
We ended up talking about things he loves to do and wishes we let him do more. It was so good. This honesty would not have happened if I sat him down for a serious discussion on boundaries and independence.
Talking while working shoulder to shoulder can create the ease and safety to discuss whatever seems to come up. Try it.
Take the African Approach
Westerners generally take a very direct route to things. If we are frustrated, we sit down and say, “I’m frustrated.” Most cultures in Africa simply do not do this. They tell stories, bring up other topics and slowly remove layers of an onion until they finally get to the point in the middle where they say, “I’m frustrated”.
I’m starting to think most kids start out more African until we get our hands on them. It just feels so much safer to slowly get to a point instead of careening at full speed into a verbal confession about their day.
Be alert and join that journey. A story or comment about something seemingly insignificant could actually be them warming up to the heart of matter.
I often initiate this and have found it a miracle worker.
Recently my youngest son was out of sorts about something, annoyed at everyone in the family.
Instead of asking him outright, I went, sat next to him and said, “Did I ever tell you about the one time Babu (my father) yelled at me?” His eyes instantly got big and he was hooked. He expected me to talk about him and his behaviour (and he’d never seen Babu yell at anyone!).
We sat and I told stories from my past, we discussed a recent movie we saw, we reminisced about our own family stories. At the end I gently said, “I bet you get frustrated with me sometimes, don’t ya?” He didn’t even blink, “I sure do, just last week…”
He didn’t have to guess if it was safe to admit this or if the timing was right… we had slowly been working up to the moment and it was just natural to now share his own story.
How can you slowly work your way in to the heart of the manner in a more gentle and safe manner?
Be careful about sarcasm and verbal takeovers
If my sons share something and I either a.) make a joke about it (sarcastic or otherwise) or b.) jump in and take over the conversation then they will simply stop telling me things.
Some parents are especially prone to this. Just stop.
Listen and take their interests and information seriously instead of making a joke. Don’t have a comment for everything, no one wants to share with a verbal hijacker. Stop those bad habits.
Lead by Example
Do you know how kids learn to communicate? By watching Mom and Dad. If you want kids who communicate, lead by example.
Share with them. Be honest and vulnerable at times (in appropriate ways). Your own vulnerability can pave the way for theirs.
As Mom and Dad, make sure they see and observe you communicating to one another. Take an interest in what each family member shares. Don’t make communicating with your kids an interrogation where Mom asks they questions and they answer.
With some attention and flexibility, we all can find our children communicating more honestly and openly… even if they only have grunts for you after school.