How to open the lines of communication in one of the most important relationships in your life.
It was such a simple exchange that started right after I completed a long, thoughtful conversation with a friend via phone. But when my nine-year old son asked me a weighty question, I knew it would perpetually impact the quality of our relationship.
Josh: “How do you do that?”
Me: “Do what?”
Josh: “Talk back and forth like that for a long time?”
Me (sinking feeling): “You mean have a conversation?”
Josh: “Yeah. That.”
Have you ever experienced a moment when you worried something had gone awry in your relationship with your son?
This was that moment for me. I considered myself very conscious about connecting with our two kids and jumping into their lives wholeheartedly. But in that instant my efforts were irrelevant. From my son’s perspective, his mom, the “down-deep” go-to person, had missed the desire right in front of her to engage in more complex conversations in a way that was meaningful to him.
Joshua’s query was also a gift though – an invitation – to grow our connection. And just as importantly, an opportunity to model authentic conversation, a skill that would serve him in all his relationships and life pursuits for the long haul.
Conversations that really matter
Some people are adept at small talk. I am not. So after that brief interchange, I began to make regular and conscious effort to use everyday circumstances to engage my son in discussions that mattered to me – “big” philosophical stuff of life. Nothing was off limits – social justice, and giving back, world hunger, feminism, sexuality, race, God and spirituality, love, politics, cultural messages, living a life that reflects who you really are, dreaming bold dreams, honesty, loyalty, family, friendships, and of course, feelings.
Whether you are already regularly engaged in authentic conversation with your children or are just getting started, here are some guidelines in the “boy talk” journey that will be sure to fundamentally improve the way you interact with your son.
Talk about ideas and emotions freely.
I’ve never met a kid – girl or boy – that wasn’t a natural storyteller and philosopher when given the opportunity to share their opinions and feelings. Engaging in keeping-it-real conversations with our sons is not the time to buy into gender stereotypes about communication and emotional relationship aptitude.
Once boys hit school-age in our culture a close emotional relationship with their moms is discouraged, even ridiculed. Let’s just say calling someone a momma’s boy is never intended as a compliment. But the research paints a different picture. Boys who have a close emotional bond with their mothers are happier and stronger adults. They even do better in school.
Further, despite what we are told over and over again, boys too desire a close emotional connection. Research shows that there are only slight social relational differences between girls and boys. I didn’t need all that research to know this about my son, though, and you probably don’t either. It’s pretty clear early on that our boys want to be part of emotional, heartfelt conversation.
Create a lecture-free zone
Joshua wasn’t looking for a life lesson that day when he asked me about my conversation with a friend. And he certainly wasn’t looking for a lecture.
Sometimes our kids will have wildly different moral conclusions than we do on issues, even really important ones. (For – uh a lifetime – so we probably should get accustomed to it!) There’s definitely a time to take a strong stand on our values, but in chats with our kids a “my opinion or the highway” stance tends to shut down the flow, so choose wisely. In the long run, modeling how to be an active listener, to offer a differing opinion, respectfully, and intently listen to their perspective are the bigger life lessons anyway.
Commit to a regular interval and start small
As cliché as it is, our lives do get really busy. The older our kids get, the less one-to-one time we have with them. Cheering on our son from the sidelines or driving him to the movies with friends is supportive parenting, but doesn’t fill the void of good conversation.
Habits are created when they are crazy-easy and where early success is established. Telling your son it’s time for your deep talk of the day is dooming it from the start. But you can commit (to yourself) to be particularly mindful about conversation at a certain time of day (even a minute a week or a day to start). With my daughter, bed time works. For my son, the perfect time trigger is while engaging in another focused activity together.
Focus on What Interests You Too
Looking back now, I realize that I spent a significant amount of time engaging in my son’s world. Sometimes feigning interest in a topic, like what kind of lure is used to catch a striper vs. bluegill, as an example. And I continue to do that, but I also try to spend time on topics that I am passionate about now too. As much as we can embarrass our kids as they get older – by being um…adults – they still desire a window into our authentic selves.
Go beyond the open-ended question
One of the upsides of growing up with an introvert-leaning personality is that I developed the skill of being an active listener early-on. The secret to sincere conversations – besides putting the cell phone away – is truly listening to and trying to understand where the other person (and by person I also mean a child) is coming from intellectually and emotionally. The open-ended question is a great start. But the real recognition begins when you take a part of a response to that question and build upon it by – repeating it back, sharing something from your own life that you can relate to it or asking a follow-on question.
Use the power of the elephant
In their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath discuss how the heart of change is to engage a person’s feelings (i.e., what they dub, the elephant). This same concept is really helpful when engaging our sons in conversation.
I used a trip to spend a gift card at a large department store as a conversation-starter to gain Joshua’s perspective on the way toys are organized along gender lines. Rather than asking him a question or just lecturing on gender stereotypes, he and I – despite the stares of the store clerks – had a blast taking photos and noticing the “blue vs. pink aisles”. The photos were striking and the visuals impacted him emotionally in a way that got us talking. At one point, his justice gene kicked in and he decided that he was going to buy a pink Swiss army knife because, “boys can like pink too”.
Joshua and I were driving in relative quiet recently when he asked me, “So how was your day?” I told him in some detail about my work that day. Being a burgeoning active listener, he responded with a “wow” and asked me to say more about a project I mentioned. I was happy to oblige. After a few minutes of chatting, I knew he was ready to move on when he yelled “score” our code word for a game where we compete to see who can find more cars with unusual colors on the highway.
Since Joshua’s first question about how to converse, our talks have continued in earnest – sometimes profound, sometimes packed with emotion, other times mundane or brief. I do know for sure that this conscious effort has changed the very core of our relationship and likely all his present and future interactions too. Just like learning to read changes a child’s life, every child should also be given the skills to converse.
It’s one of the primary ways we humans communicate and connect after all. We need to empower our girls, but we also desperately need to engage our sons in meaningful, soulful, and thought-provoking dialogues. And beyond our sons, don’t we really need to have more of these conversations with everyone in our lives? So how about you? Share your ideas and experiences with the transforming-power of authentic conversation.