When my oldest son was going through extreme heartache due to social pressure and pressure in the competitive high school sports arena, I was a most fortunate dad to be able to lay by his side at night (even though he was bigger than me), walk through his depression, and dry the painful tears that fell from his eyes night after night. Those were awful days for us, but the lifelong friendship that ensued remains with us to this day. I can’t tell you how blessed I was to get to walk alongside him, embrace his sadness and “tie his heart back together again.” God used his brokenness to mold him into one of the most cherished, empathetic and understanding men I’ve ever known. That lad married Cinderella (literally) and, for the last eight years, has pastored the Disney cast with Biblical wisdom that only a meek and broken man could embody.
What makes a parent’s lap in a rocking chair a safe place?
What makes a parent’s shoulder a soft place to lay a tearful head?
What makes a parent’s ear a ready receiver when a child needs someone to talk to?
There’s no greater joy and no greater privilege than to be needed by a child! There are few things in life as important and as fulfilling as getting to “be there” when your child is in need of a friend.
An Approachable Countenance
Every day, as parents, we hang signs around our neck that, though invisible to outsiders, display themselves in bright florescent lights to a child.
The signs that many parents wear are “Critical”, “Advice Giver”, “Harsh”, “Talkative”, “Condemning”, “Busy”, or “Quick Answers”. Kids can spot these signs a mile away and will walk wide circles around them when it comes time for meaningful conversations. (Without a doubt, there are times when “no” and “absolutely not” are the right things to say … like when the goldfish bowl is in the hands of a four-year old or when an inappropriate high school senior wants to take your ninth-grader to a party!)
On the other hand, effective parents who enjoy their kids and find the joy of warm, meaningful conversations with their sons and daughters hang invisible signs around their necks that broadcast messages like “Listener”, “Empathetic”, “Patient”, “Soft”, “Approachable”, “Non-condemning”, and “Non-judgmental”.
Ask someone in your family which signs you most often wear, and learn from the answers. Signs can be changed immediately for better results!
A Great Big Ear
Unsolicited Advice Perceived as Criticism
This is one of the most powerful and most reliable truths in parenting. From the time children can walk and talk, their favorite expressions are “By self” and “Let me do it”. (How many times have you heard that?) An effective parent knows this psychological treasure of truth.
If a child can be assisted in dreaming up his/her own solution to the problem, he/she is highly likely to solve it (and a whole lot of great interaction ensues in the process.). If a parent tells a child what to do, it takes very little effort, very little time, very little communication, and it’s very likely not going to happen with an enthusiastic heart.
Next time, try asking a series of great, open-ended questions, and watch the doors open.
With great empathy, warmth and respect ask:
“What do you want?”
“How can I help you with that?”
“What’s on your heart?”
Don’t let the simplicity fool you; these questions open the cognitive door … the thinking door.
If you’ve caught your child in a good time to talk and he/she shares with you a thought or two, DON’T RESPOND and DON’T ADVISE no matter what! Simply ask:
“How are you feeling?”
Again, just listen and apply facial expressions that show you care. This question opens the emotional door.
If a child says, “Sad,” gently say, “Tell me about your sadness.” If your child says, “Frustrated,” gently say, “Tell me about your frustration” And so on. Simply chase the emotional answer with another empathetic invitation to talk. After that door starts to open and you’ve let it run its course, then ask, “What are you doing?” (to get what you want). This begins to open the “Behavioral Door” and helps the child start to form a plan of action to solve his/her problem. If the child says something like, “I don’t know what to do,” gently start over, and give him/her a chance to rephrase and go a little deeper.
It’s an amazing process. I’ve used it countless times in counseling. Sometimes I’ll go through the questions five or six times, and each time I’ll rephrase the questions and ask for a different answer. The layers begin to peel off, and more often than not, when I ask the final question, “What do you need to do to get what you want?”, the child is on his/her way to making some changes or creating a solution to solve the problem. Remember, the goal is not to solve the problem! The goal is conversation. The goal is relationship. I’ll be forever grateful to my friend and Kamp dad, J. David Stone, for teaching me this invaluable process many years ago.
Seven Keys to Great Conversations with Your Child
1. Let him/her see your heart. Be warm. Be empathetic. Care.
2. Don’t criticize, condemn or complain. It will kill the conversation every time!
3. Be patient. Let the conversation flow.
4. Ask open-ended questions. Become an expert at formulating them.
5. Wait for calm, teachable moments for great conversation. If you or your child is frustrated, tired or short on time, put it on pause and come back when there’s time and a heart to care and listen.
6. The goal is relationship, not solution. (Of course, we all know there are times when solutions are urgent.)
7. Listen, listen, listen, listen.
Have a Safe Place to Talk
My family had our share of conflict, especially in the teen years. At the time, it seemed we struggled through countless problems, but at night, at bedtime, we didn’t talk about difficult relationship issues. We didn’t correct or fight at bedtime. Bedtime was a safe place to pray, to listen, to treasure Bible verses in our hearts, to encourage and to say, “I love you, and I’m proud to be your dad.” Amazing conversations happened at bedtime. I called it our “sanctuary.” Those were my favorite times as a dad. When I wasn’t traveling, we seldom missed. Kids need a safe place to talk.
The lessons in this newsletter were learned the hard way, so benefit from my experience and my mistakes. Then you, too, can have great and safe conversations with the kids you love so much.
Together for the kids,