These days, when parenting my children, I am working on keeping my mouth shut more often. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a chatter box. And I don’t prattle on when it is obvious that no one is interested or listening (at least not usually…). But I have become convinced that if I talk less, it will be better for my kids.
Let’s be clear, I am not saying I want to bail on helping my girls negotiate their interactions with each other, or work out solutions to disagreements. And I don’t plan to stop giving my daughters all the information we can handle. (I say “we” because sometimes they want more information than I’ve got, and other times I’ve got more than they want.) I am also not saying that I want to withhold things from them — either truth or feelings or even opinions. And yet, even in these “necessarily” talkative areas, I am wanting to say less.
As it turns out, helping the girls navigate social interactions, which largely (though not only) consists of negotiating and working through things with each other, is currently how I spend the largest majority of my parenting time. It’s true! In fact, on any given day, Natalie and I may spend as much as 25% of our exchanges with the girls “translating” for them. That’s primarily because they can use a great deal of help steering clear of sticky misunderstandings that may otherwise turn into unnecessarily painful interactions. It is also, and equally, because we think there is a specific set of skills involved in healthy negotiation that will be extremely useful to the girls in the future and that we therefore wish to model for them regularly.
At the same time, I want to develop prowess in letting them work it out when they can. I want to stay a little further back and watch, rather than leaping in, verbally or otherwise, at the first sign of distress. I want to give them the chance to let it go when that feels most appropriate to them. And I want to avoid creating a laborious situation when there is just a momentary lapse in understanding that winds up being of little importance to the children involved.
Another primary time and speech investment in our daily parenting lives is in giving our children information. I also happen to think that this is one of the primary areas in which children are consistently not given enough of what they need by any of their caregivers –so I feel a little internal pressure to really go for it. We give our girls information about our plans, about changes in the plans, about what is happening in the next 10 minutes of the plan, about how things work, about how we prefer things to work, about how we feel, about how others might feel, about social etiquette, about compassion, about everything that we can. We have given ourselves over to this methodology so whole-heartedly that I sometimes catch myself not wanting to answer another single “Why, Papa?”. And in the moment, I may have some frustration to quickly process, but even then I am also glad that my daughters are unabashedly curious, and that their passion for learning and understanding remains intact, and that they are the least likely girls I know to agree to do something without asking “WHY?” (a trait I hope will serve them very well in their teenage futures). I want them to ask “Why?” until it hurts. And I want to give them as much information as we can stand — for more reasons than I can take time to list at present. (Though I see another post in our collective future that will do just that…)
It’s that part about how much “we can stand” where the shutting up comes in rather handy. There are lots of times when my daughters don’t want/aren’t ready to hear the information I want to share with them. There are times when they’re not that interested, or when they get distracted by something else. There are also times when they’ve got feelings that need addressing first, when they are upset about something that happened and don’t want to hear about — well, anything else. I am a little more savvy about this than I used to be, but I still have a bit further to go. So I am working on waiting or completely abstaining from giving them “another perspective” to think about, or finding a solution to the current moment’s tough feelings (at least until they have a chance to feel what they are feeling). Sometimes I am waiting until a completely different day to give them the information I want them to have or think they need. Sometimes I am abstaining all together, and choosing to believe that they got enough from the interaction, or the feelings they felt, and don’t need to hear anything further from me about it.
Finally, as I mentioned above, I don’t want to hold back when it comes to talking about the truth (as I see it), or my feelings, or my opinions with the girls. I want to discuss these things, because they are not only informing to the girls (about me and my version of the world), but also affirming and challenging to them (depending on whether or not we are in agreement…). My daughters rely on me to tell them what I think, and to be honest about it, as well as to model that the expression of feelings and ideas is safe (and often extremely helpful).
However, I don’t want to share my opinion when I know the girls will take it as a judgement of either them or their feelings. I really don’t want them to feel judged by me in the slightest — even if I totally disagree with their actions or assertions. What I will give them in that situation is a clear description of how the other person(s) involved might feel about it, and/or (when appropriate) a clear description of what I might prefer instead. And I will do that without shaming them, or using guilt to coerce them, or any other method/words that could give them the erroneous impression that their worth to me is contingent (on anything).
I also don’t want to share my version of “the Truth” when I sense that it will limit the girls’ ability to forge their own. This one is particularly slippery, because of how dedicated I am to giving my children enough information. There are plenty of times, however, when the information I have is still just my own version of things, or what I have been taught, or what concerns me. And those things aren’t necessarily of that much service to my daughters. For example, the girls believe, without a single doubt whatsoever, that faeries are real, exist in this world with us, and are constantly effecting our lives. Now, I happen to agree with them on this one, but if I didn’t, I would keep my mouth shut about it. They don’t actually need me to dispel any ideas like this. It is one of those places where even the most tender parent might be lured into thinking he needs to “set the kid straight” or help delineate the “real” world from the “imaginary”. And to that parent, I would ask “Why?”. What is the point of denying the child’s truth in this or any situation? What are you really giving your child, by trying to make him assume your truth?
I have another example of keeping parental “Truth” under wraps. Yesterday, we were all at the river, and Bella was eating a sandwich while standing shin-deep in the water. Now some parents would have shouted down the bank, “Get outta the river with that sandwich or you’re gonna drop it in the water…” And those parents would likely think that this was an undeniable truth (“maybe it didn’t happen this time, but it will if you don’t stop…”). What I did instead, was politely ask Bella to come over to me for a moment, and using my best Law of Attraction language, I quietly suggested that Bella “remember to keep that sandwich dry” until she ate it. She did end up going back into the water with it, but she got the message I most wanted her to get, and kept the sandwich dry, and both without me trying to make her believe what may or may not be true for her.
I am doing this variety of self-editing whenever I think fast enough to realize that what I would otherwise say is just a version, and/or might actually create what I want to avoid. For more on this one, and more on Law of Attraction language with kids check out Natalie’s post on the subject.
When it comes to my feelings, I choose to be very honest with my kids. I’ll say if I am feeling mad, or if I am feeling frustrated, and even if I am feeling sad (which seems to be the scariest thing for my girls). I do this because I consider it good modeling, and I want them to feel like they can share their feelings with me. But I don’t want to share my feelings if I know it will cause the girls’ to assume more responsibility than is appropriate for their ages. For example, I won’t tell the kids if I am really upset about finances. It just isn’t their place to deal with that, or my feelings about it. This is at least partly because I happen to know that they would take it on themselves, as something for which they were somehow responsible. It’s also because I happen to want them to know they are safe in the world, and that we are taking care of them and their needs. They will have plenty of concerns of their own in life without taking on mine (when they should get to enjoy being children, i.e. carefree).
In addition to the above, there’s a couple of other places where I am wanting to keep my mouth shut more, but the general stance is the same. I will speak less, listen longer, and choose the words I utter as carefully as I can. There are innumerable moments in children’s lives when they get all the information they need without hearing an adult say a single word. That may seem ridiculous in an era when we are beginning institutional education at the youngest ages in history, but it is worthy of consideration. When was the last time you abstained from trying to “teach [your kid] a lesson” when s/he made a choice you didn’t like? How much do you think s/he needed you to explain? Our kids aren’t idiots — they can generally figure out a lot of things on their own. There’s also good evidence that they will even do it faster if we would just shut up every once in awhile.