Over the years, one of the most common conversations I’ve had during parent/teacher conferences is centered on the idea of children communicating with their parents. I believe that much of a child’s success often rides on their ability to feel safe, comfortable, vulnerable, and open with others. When children experience these feelings around those responsible for raising and educating them, they have a far greater likelihood of attaining, developing, and maintaining social and emotional success than children who feel they aren’t safe, cannot be vulnerable, and shy from open conversation due to fear of what others will think. I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or doctor of any sort, but from experience, I can offer one very real solution to a parent incessantly begging their child to share their feelings and thoughts.
We all want people close to us to feel like they can say and share anything–that we won’t judge them or react in extreme ways. However, the traditional notion that a child who places trust in their parent will tell that parent what is on their mind is simply not always true–at best, it is only part of the grand equation. In fact, many children (in my experiences) that have asserted genuine and strong trust in their parents still felt disconnected–feeling safe and vulnerable was not always enough for them to open up and share their feelings and thoughts. The basic and primordial sense of security and love provided by parents did little to help many of my students feel like they could tell those parents about things like: their feelings for the opposite sex, what happened at school that day, who was treating them poorly, or if they were failing a class. It has also kept them from sharing some great achievements, and the reason is quite simple: security, safety, and love will provide a net for a child, but understanding, connectedness, and shared experiences can help plug openings in that net and create a more natural flow of communication between children and their parents.
The best example I can provide is two-fold. Take parent A, a loving mother or father that makes sure their child has everything they need in order to make it through their day. They even ask their child probing questions, but they often feel frustrated because they do so much and simply want a better connection–they want their child to feel like they can say and share anything with them, yet a common response from their child is along these lines: “Good,” “It was fine,” “Yes,” or “No.” These types of responses then lead parents to a commonly over-utilized comment, “You know you can talk to me about anything, right?” As a teacher, I’ve learned that when I find myself uttering this statement, it is most likely because I’ve already failed to establish a true and meaningful connection. By suggesting that a student can talk to me about anything, I have probably already defined my role among our relationship in a way that communicates to them that they actually cannot or should not tell me certain things. I might truly mean what I say, but if the claims feel hollow to the child or student, then my intentions are unlikely to be realized.
Now take parent B, a loving mother or father that makes sure their child has everything they need…sounds similar, right? In reality, there is a great deal of overlap and consistency between the two types of parents I am referencing–but there is one distinct difference that I have experienced which has driven me to a far greater understanding of what it means to connect with a child. Parent B takes time, let’s say 30 minutes every day, to do absolutely whatever their child wants to do. Think about this for a moment. This doesn’t necessarily mean providing options for a child–this means giving your child complete control for 30 minutes. Do they want to play pirates in the backyard and run around the house 48 times? Do it with them. Do they want to make a fort out of pillows and destroy and rebuild said fort 96 times? Do it with them. Do they want to read a science fiction book together even though you don’t like science fiction books? Do it with them. You get the point. If they understand, even if it is only for a brief period of time, that they have a sense of agency and independence, traits you will want your child to build and exude anyway, and you are part of that dynamic, then you have helped instill character traits while simultaneously demonstrating interest in what they want to do. And who do we share our most intimate thoughts with? Generally, we share those thoughts with the people we bond with–the people that do the things we like doing. If you do this with your child, you loudly and clearly establish that you value them, and you will begin to understand them in ways you never have before–and vice versa. When this begins to happen, you will probably find that you no longer have to state, “You know you can talk to me about anything, right?” They will have already begun to share their world with you because you have allowed them to do so, shown interest in their passions and hobbies, and given them room to grow right before your eyes.
Now, this admittedly unoriginal yet critically important idea of spending time with children under their circumstances is not to suggest that we let children jam peanut butter sandwiches down the garbage disposal and scream profanities while doing so just because they want to–far from it. It is an opportunity for them to be creative and to learn how to work with others, and you–the parent or teacher–have the ability to dictate how that relationship will blossom. You have the ability to teach them how to be responsible, how to set and manage boundaries, and how to communicate when these are broken. Will you teach them how and when to lead and follow effectively? Or will they learn simply to take orders? Will they learn compassion and humility in these experiences, or will they drift through childhood and learn these concepts in later stages when the stakes are much higher? That is what it all comes down to: what type of relationship do you have? What are you teaching children? How are you relating to them? Is your existence entrenched in survival and obedience, or is it one of mutual learning, respect, and growth?
Understanding that I have likely already come off as a man standing on a soap box while telling others how to parent their children, teach their students, and live their life, I will refrain from further speculation. After all, I have limited experience as a father–but I should tell you that such experience is deeply rooted in trial, consistent practice, and self-reflection as a teacher of children for the past eight years. My greatest hope is that you might find something of interest or worth among the aforementioned words. Perhaps you will offer some views of your own, even those that run counter to mine–for as Aristotle said best, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” And isn’t our greatest voyage in life to educate ourselves the best we can in hopes that we may evolve in ways that we cannot yet comprehend? I guess I’ll just have to invest the time and energy to find out.