It occurs to me that the measure of authentic attention we pay to our young children when they try to tell us about their interests will be exactly how much they want to tell us when they become teenagers and young adults. That is, if we notice what they notice and actively listen to what they offer as children, they will keep offering their interests and stories as they grow, and will trust us enough to keep sharing later when we ask.
I see so many sullen teens. Uncommunicative. Hurt. Sure, in part it happens because peers can be unfair, even cruel; the standards against which they measure themselves today are ridiculously unhealthy and unhelpful; and they desperately need order and peace but live in chaos and noise.
But it’s also about needing parents to listen when they were young children. Parents can teach children that their thoughts and priorities are important from the earliest days and build the bonds — and habits — of communication that will see teens through the toughest years, keep them from feeling isolated, and help prevent them from turning to destructive habits for identity.
This is true of the kids I’m serving now — young people living in the margins of tragic homelife distress and misguided streetlife opportunity, without a positive way and trustworthy guide to articulate their turbulent emotions. They have little to say and a whole lot to prove. Some are sullen, steely. Some are quiet, sad. Others are outwardly so mean that there appears to be little hope for them to reroute their path. And it would be an oversimplification to say that just sitting down with these youth for a chat over supper will correct a lifetime of hardship, unstructured schedules, and parents whose own choices and character have done harm. These kids’ basic needs have not been met and their spirits have not been nurtured in any way let alone through loving communication.
But it’s also true of those stoic kids from so-called stable homes of means who, in reaching for independence, have shut down and straightarmed their parents.
Could their closed-ness have been avoided from the start, and even changed now? I believe so, yes. I’ve come to believe the one sure key to closeness in the long game of parenting is to pay attention at every age. Listen. Make eye contact. Be enthusiastic not just tolerant. Show that you value what they value.
Start developing the habits of give and take when children are in strollers, car seats, and shopping carts. Mimic their sounds. Speak to them intelligently. I’m a huge fan of Dr. Sears’ approach to attachment parenting and “baby wearing.”
In the toddler, preschool years, and elementary years, listen. Ask questions. Make time. Ask their opinions. Notice what they notice. Again, make eye contact. When they notice a leaf, a cloud, a rock, a bird and try to share it with you, turn your attention from the phone, groceries, video, errands and stop to share the wonder of discovery.
For youth already in their tweens and teens it takes extra patience and creativity to begin building closeness and open communication. Even in my current assignment where half a dozen kids treat me like I am completely worthless and an object of ridicule and scorn, most of the kids can already see that I genuinely care and their defenses are slowly melting.
Here are a few ideas for this age group.
- “Windshield time” in the car offers closed-space side-by-side proximity for conversations about current issues in the news, events at school, and more.
- Create shared experiences and positive memory making through a service project you do together.
- Take a single-session class together, such as cooking, photography, jewelry making, art.
- Learn how to do something your kids really like to do, such as video games.
- Help on the work teams that support your school’s sports team (snack bar, ticket sales, time keeper), or theater production (set building, publicity, rehearsal snacks) to get to know their friends and their friends’ parents. Without being intrusive, be where they are, do what they do, care about their causes.
And, when they do share hard news about hard subjects and deep feelings, keep your reactions and judgment to yourself. But that’s another article.
Do you have ideas you would share on this subject? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!