I originally wrote a version of this article for TakePart.com where I contribute a weekly education post. Check out the rest of my articles there.
Tea and Sympathy
When kids start school a piece of us leaves with them every morning. When they return, we’re eager to hear about their day so we can reconnect emotionally and gauge how they’re doing out in the world.
When asked, “How was school?” kids who are natural talkers will overflow with details. Others will simply say, “OK.” End of conversation. At that point, a wise parent would smile, nod, and let the day’s dust settle. Later, patience may be rewarded as the child reveals bits of news over the course of the evening. Either way, most parents love hearing about their elementary school children’s successes and disappointments. We also delight in every chance we get to offer encouragement and advice when needed. These interactions just may be the juicy heart of parenting.
By middle school, however, kids tend to be more guarded when they talk about things that happen away from home. Of course, parents and kids still need to connect, but our part of the conversations should factor in an appreciation for their ongoing need to keep parts of their lives private as they transition into young adulthood.
Let’s say you do respect your kids’ boundaries, but you’re still frustrated with the lack of information you get about what’s going on in school. A good way to improve communication is to:
1. Show that you’re interested. This point seems so obvious I almost didn’t include it, but then I got a teen email tailor-made for this article:
My parents never ask how I’m doing. They just walk in and complain about how their day was terrible. Then I think, “Why won’t you ask your two lovely daughters how their day was?” When they decide to ask, I just get awfully nervous. I feel as if I say the wrong thing I’ll get judged.”
Sounds like this family is missing good opportunities to connect with each other. And I’m guessing Mom and Dad aren’t even aware they’re being perceived as disinterested and “judgmental.” Cutie has offered an overlooked perspective: that of a child who wants to talk but feels her parents don’t want to listen. Food for thought.
2. Give kids time to decompress. Talk is more likely to flow naturally after the shoes come off, food’s dished out, and everyone has had time to relax and be at home.
3. Be a safe person to talk to. Kids have lots of feelings about what happens during a typical school day. Talking about feelings helps us understand ourselves and other people better. When your kid wants to talk, unplug, open your heart and mind, and dial back your inner judge way back. Also try not to poo-poo your child’s challenges as “kid stuff” nor to leap into “I’ll handle this” mode. Parenting is nothing if not a balancing act.
4. Be a good listener. That’s the hallmark of every good parent. In fact, during the teen years, the most effective parents often report how they’ve learned to “talk less and listen more.” Excellent advice for anyone who wants a child to talk more. Also useful for anyone who wants to teach kids that we show we care about others by listening with an open heart and mind.
5. Model what you want. If you want your child to share more with you then how about if you get into the habit of sharing more with him/her? For example, over dinner you might say, “Today was tough. One of my coworkers always interrupts me at meetings. It’s really annoying. You know?” This simple, open-ended question might prompt your child to commiserate and share about a challenging peer relationship s/he’s dealing with. Authentic conversation on!
In case you’re wondering how I responded to Cutie Klutz, here’s my reply:
We all want and need to be listened to– especially by the people we love. Since sharing anything with your parents makes you “awfully nervous,” how about starting with something small, simple, and positive? Like, “I talked to this new girl from Wisconsin. She’s cool.” Or, “I got an A on my Spanish test. I studied really hard so that felt good.” I hope you try this, Cutie, because your Mom and Dad love you. If you give them a chance to chill for a bit after work and you challenge yourself to speak up a bit more, they just might become better listeners. I hope so!