Parents can get stuck when it comes to talking to kids about difficult subjects. Sex, divorce, adoption — parents come to me wanting to know what to say and when.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because there aren’t easy answers. Like I always say, kids are individuals so even though we can look at child developmental tables and make general guidelines (like these from Child Welfare Information Gateway about adoption and these from Today’s Parent about the birds and the bees) applying them to your actual real life and actual real child is more challenging.
Like, what if you’re not comfortable with the topic? And what if your child is asking questions that the guidelines say they shouldn’t be asking yet? Or what if they’re not asking questions the guidelines say they should? Or what if your 7-year old asks while his 4-year old brother is in the car with you both? Whose development are you supposed to be talking to then?
Here’s the thing I want parents to know — those of you concerned about doing it wrong are unlikely to do that. Seriously. Parents who are putting thought into this — enough thought to read through this post — are pretty darn likely to be thoughtful in their sharing. So know that. Know that you may not say the exact right thing but that’s not the same as saying the entirely wrong thing.
Kids do get confused. We tell them things and they don’t understand it. This doesn’t mean that you told it wrong or that they weren’t ready to hear it. You say something and they listen and they think about it and they mix stuff up or get things wrong or forget what you said and then they need to hear you say it again.
Ok, my daughter gave me permission to share this with you.
When she was 5-years old she started asking some very particular questions about her adoption. (She hasn’t given me permission to share those particulars so let’s just stay general.) I answered them. They weren’t easy questions — they were a little more in depth than those charts say she’d be asking — but she asked so I answered. Two weeks later she asked them again. A few days later she made a statement that made clear that she was still confused.
Each time was an opportunity to correct her confusion, to help her process the information and to move her forward in her thinking. After those three times she could talk about the topic clearly and could even reflect back on her confusion. She could explain to me why she thought what she did and — importantly — move past the facts that were tripping her up and share with me her feelings, which in some ways informed some of that confusion.
This is the thing about learning — learning needs to happen at different times and in different places to really stick. When we say, “I don’t think a child that age can understand that” we’re ignoring the fact that how children grow in understanding is through discussion.
Think about a common kindergarten activity, the one where you put a wet paper towel in a ziploc bag, stick a seed in it and tape the whole thing to the window so you can watch it germinate. Do kids really get what’s happening? Do they understand the entire complex process? No, of course not but they are beginning. We don’t wait until they get the hard core science and then tape the bag to the window, right? Of course not. We introduce it early, we introduce it again later, we build on the complexity, we answer their questions. We work to be age appropriate but we also push a little. A kindergartener is not necessarily going to ask you to show her how seeds grow but that doesn’t mean she won’t benefit from watching a bean sprout against her window.
New context and repetition leads to understanding.
One of the hardest thing for us parents to wrap our heads around is how often we have to repeat ourselves.
“Shut the door.”
“Pick up your shoes.”
“No, you can’t have cookies for dinner.”
“Hitting is against the rules in this house.”
You’d think they’d figure it out after the 457th time we’ve said it and yet there we go, repeating ourselves over and over and over again.
There’s a reason we have to turn into broken records; our kids are always growing and so they need to learn some things over and over and over again.
When your child grows from one stage into a new stage she’s learning things in an entirely new context. She has new developmental tasks to master, new facts to contemplate, and new skills to integrate. In this entirely new environment the things you’ve taught her — shut the door, pick up your shoes, etc. — don’t mean what they used to mean and she has to learn them again.
For example, your average everyday 3-year old may be pretty good about not slamming the door. She’s anxious to please you, likes your approval and wants to prove what a big girl she is. That’s the context she’s learning that whole “shut the door quietly” rule.
That very same child as a 4-year old may start slamming the door again. Her curiosity may be more intense at this age so she may be so anxious to move onto the next thing that the door slams behind her before she even notices. 4-year olds may also be more interested in challenging adults, leading to more door slamming because now she wants to explore what happens when she breaks your rules.
Totally the same behavior happening in totally different contexts with totally different things to learn. We just see the annoying behavior, we just hear ourselves saying it yet again — “Don’t slam the door!” — but for her it’s not just a slamming door, it’s a whole new thing to learn in a whole new way.
What parents need is faith that all of our repetition is sinking in because it is. We also need to know that continued commitment to the house rules and values create a structure that makes it safe for our children to grow and that part of that growth includes challenging that structure. It’s not easy, I know, but know that with every repetition you are offering your child a new opportunity to learn.
Parenting is a long-haul operation, lemme tell you. Hang in there!
And now for your listening pleasure (because parents need a little pleasure to get through some of this rough stuff) is The Bird and The Bee singing Again & Again.
The Bird And The Bee “Again and Again” from Miky Wolf on Vimeo.
Awhile back I was talking to someone who was telling me about her exercise-induced asthma. She described the feeling of her chest tightening up and her breath cutting off when she ran without her inhaler and as I was listening I was thinking, “Hmmm, isn’t that how all exercise is?” I came home and asked my husband, also a runner, and he said, no, that’s not how exercise is. He said losing your breath is nothing like having your chest close up so you can’t breathe. So off I trotted to my doctor who said, yes, I have asthma. Go figure. I’ve had this issue forever and just now got diagnosed.
I thought I was experiencing the same old thing everyone was experiencing and so I didn’t question it. I did shame myself about it a lot when I was a teenager (telling myself if I just worked harder! If I just made myself run through it! If I just tried more!) before accepting that I’m a slow and steady person who can’t do heavy cardio. Only now my doc is telling me with the right meds maybe I can.
Here is my point.
Sometimes our reality isn’t real. Which is to say, something that we think is universally true (Don’t all bosses belittle their workers? Don’t all partners shut down periodically and refuse to speak to their spouses? Don’t all children have falling down tantrums ’til they’re seven or eight?) may actually be a sign that whatever we’re putting up with could use a fix. But how do we know? How do we know that what we’re experiencing is not “normal?”
(I hesitate to use the word “normal” here because sometimes what we need to do is redefine normal. So for me, normal means medication before I do cardio. That’s not necessarily “abnormal” if you think about it in the context of asthma. Likewise some behaviors may just need a new definition of normal depending on what’s going on.)
I think one of the biggest ways we can know that something’s wrong and could use some fixing is when we allow ourselves to recognize our unhappiness or discomfort with it. At the very least, that’s the best way to know that we need help. I could have mentioned my wheezing to the doctor during my annual check up when we talked about exercise. I could have explained why I switched back to the elliptical instead of that Couch to 5K program I started (and wheezed my way to the seventh week before I had to quit — I could never get through the long 20 minute run). After all, I was sad about giving up Couch to 5K and that alone made it worth mentioning.
Someone struggling with her boss or her partner or her kids could call someone (why, a therapist springs to mind!) and say, “Hey, is this typical? Do I need to learn to live with it? Or is there something I can do to change it or make living with it easier?”
My feeling is that if something is bothering you, it’s worth checking out. What the heck, it might help, right?
The good news is one of the best things you can do as a parent is really simple: Listen.
The bad news is that it’s also really hard because listening doesn’t mean:
- Giving unasked for advice
- Sharing unasked for parental wisdom
- “At leasting“
Parenting is pretty goal oriented. We spend a lot of time trying to help these kids grow up by teaching them, directing them and moving them forward. But sometimes when we do that, we’re stepping on their own trajectory. Sometimes we need to leave them alone to figure things out themselves.
That doesn’t mean we have to sit there doing nothing; it means sometimes we have to sit there and listen.
No advice. No fixing. No rushing to judgment. Instead say, “Uh-huh.” Or, “Really?” Or, “Tell me more.”
Use your words to join with them. Say, “That sounds hard.” Or, “How frustrating!” Or, “No wonder you came home so excited!”
If they try to get you to fix it for them, try handing it back. “I don’t know, what do you think?” Or, “It reminds me of that time you had that other thing happen. What did you do then?”
You may have to sit on your hands or do your Yoga breathing to keep yourself from jumping in. You may need to run a mantra through your head, “Don’t Talk Don’t Talk Don’t Talk Don’t Talk.” If you’re used to being a more active participant in the conversations, it’ll take some getting used to (for both of you).
I’m not saying that you should never ever ever give your child advice or help them more directly, but if you feel like you’re in the habit of leaping in during conversations, try hanging back and see what happens. It’s a simple (if hard) way to say, “I love you” without saying a word.
The Moth is a story slam radio show that airs on WOSU 89.7 every Saturday at 2pm but you can also catch it at the web site or via podcast. It’s not the kind of show you can have on in the background while you’re making dinner or cleaning house because you’ll end up sitting down at the kitchen table, listening hard, and your rice will burn and your laundry will be left damp and wrinkled while it waits for you to remember to hang it on the line.
This week’s Therapeutic Moment share is Joyce Maynard’s story, Love is the Best Art of All. It’s about trying to heal our broken hearts by living out do-overs with our children, about martyring ourselves to our kids with the very best intentions, and about how sometimes we create greater hurts because we’re trying so hard to make sure they are never hurt at all.
You can watch her tell it in the embedded video below or you can read another less raw version of it here.