A few months ago, I became the mother of a ten-year old. And seeminlgly out of nowhere, my first-born has become more independent… more mature… more grown up.
Though I am having fun watching my boys grow and develop, I am also freighted by it. Terrified, actually. With each passing year, they become more self-sufficient; they have minds of their own and are making their own choices.
Much as I don’t enjoy this lack of control, I know that I simply cannot have eyes on my children 24/7. I can’t always be there to guide and protect them. I have no choice but to trust in the decisions they make when I’m not around.
What I can do is try to keep the lines of communication open; I can guide them from the sidelines. But any parent will tell you that’s not as easy as it sounds.
So how can we get our growing kids to talk to us… to open up… to admit their mistakes… to ask the difficult questions? Here’s how I do it:
I don’t attack.
Last week, my ten-year old and a few of his friends got their hands on a Sharpie while playing in the back yard. Somehow they thought it would be a good idea to write on swing set, my new retaining wall and the deck. Anger doesn’t begin to capture the emotion I was feeling when I discovered my graffitied landscaping. I wanted to scream. I wanted to yell. I wanted to say, “what’s wrong with you!?!” But I knew if I did, I’d not only make him feel terrible about himself, but I’d also make it harder for him talk to me about it. So instead, I took a deep breath and I calmly asked, “What on earth was going through your head?” With that, I got sincerely-apologetic, “I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking. I’m so sorry, mom.” Clearly, he acted on impulse, as ten-year old boys often do. We discussed it. He apologized. He cried. He promised to never do it again. He hugged me and I hugged him back. I told him I loved him. I then handed him a Magic Eraser and he got to work cleaning up his mess. He then suffered the consequence of no XBox for the rest of the weekend.
I admit to my mistakes.
It’s all too easy for our kids to look at us parents and assume we’re always doing the right thing. I mean, adults can do no wrong, right? Wrong! I think this perception of us makes it harder for them to come to us with admissions of guilt. So I talk openly to my kids about my own mistakes. A few weeks ago, in a fit of rage, I went on a rant to my husband about the idiots at the Pharmacy who didn’t seem to have a clue as to what they were doing. Unbeknownst to me, my children heard the whole conversation. Now, I don’t like the word “idiot.” I don’t usually use it and I come down hard on them when they do. And here I was, going off on the “idiots” who were just trying (albeit, poorly) to do their job. (I may have even dropped an F bomb in there, too.) When I realized they’d heard how I was talking, I apologized to them. I explained that I was wrong, that I made a mistake and that I was not proud of my behavior. I reminded them that I, like everybody, make mistakes and it’s okay. I told them that I would try harder next time.
I remind them that I was once a kid, too.
Earlier this year, my 8yo was sent to the Principal’s office for shooting a spitball lunch. Sure I grounded him and sent him to his room and all that good stuff. But the fun didn’t end there; I wanted to talk about it and understand what was going through his head at the time. So I asked him to tell me what happened. He just sat there, silent, sad and a little scared. Seeing this was going nowhere fast, I then explained to him that while I was disappointed with his poor behavior, I was once a kid, too; I, like him, used to get in trouble for my own poor choices. With that, he relaxed a little and he started to talk. He was able to see me not as the do-no-wromg mom, but rather as someone who possibly remembers what it’s like to be a kid. This—the fact that I was once where my children are now—is something I frequently reinforce with them. I never want my boys to see me as the holier-than-thou parental figure who will look down on them for mistakes they make—but rather as someone who’s been there, too and gets it.
I place a very strong emphasis on telling the truth.
I have no tolerance for lying. I frequently tell my kids that the lie is usually worse than the crime. Take my ten-year-old, for example: He recently got in trouble for repeatedly disobeying the teacher’s orders during a tour of the middle school. Though the teacher told me all about it, I wanted to hear it from his own lips. Later that day, I calmly asked him how the middle school tour went. He hemmed and hawed a bit, then finally fessed up. While I was clearly not happy about what had happened, I thanked him for telling me the truth and we talked briefly about the importance of honesty. I then turned my attention to his inappropriate behavior at school. By starting out on more of a positive note, the rest of the conversation flowed smoothly from there.
Does it work every single time? No. Am I always cool, calm and collected? Not so much. But generally speaking, this approach works for me. For now, the lines of communication are free flowing. I can only hope and pray that I’ll have the same level of success as they get older.
Next year, we face middle school. Hold me.