Monthly Archives: October 2013

Conversations Without Questions

I (David) recently had a conversation with my 16-year old son during which I tried to talk to him for 15 minutes without asking a single question. Why would a parent of a teenager do such a thing? … Because I was told to. I’m a clinical psychology student, and in one of my classes, we are exploring the benefits of eliminating questions from counseling interactions. This was homework.

In this conversation, I took the opportunity to address a behavioral concern. Our son is great, and doesn’t give us much to worry about; but he’s a teenager, and we live together, and this means we occasionally struggle with opposing perspectives. While we talked, I had to work hard to swallow several questions. Instead, I described the behavior I had seen, and told him about my confusion regarding his choices. When he spoke up, I tried simply to understand his perspective and reflect his words as best I could.

It’s crazy hard to avoid questions in a conversation with teens. Questions are so easy: “What were you thinking?”; “Did it occur to you to think about someone other than yourself?”; “Are you planning on doing your homework anytime soon?” Questions like this are not productive. Of course there are times when legitimate and important questions need asking. But think about it: one of the great challenges of the adolescent and teen years is feeling like your parents don’t get you. What a revolution we could start in our homes by dialing down the interrogations and instead working hard to show our kids that we understand. Look at it this way: we already know the answers to each of the above questions (“I don’t know.”; “No.”; and “Whatever.”) It’s not that hard to remember what it was like to be a teenager.

Questions remind kids of school, especially when coming from an authority (like a parent). When we ask a question of a young person, they just know that there must be a right answer, and it’s probably not the one they are thinking of. We’re learning that our goal when asking questions is often not to learn something from our child, but to make a point of our own. To a kid, questions don’t feel like an invitation to dialog, but direction. Rhetorical questions might be fine when making a speech or preaching a sermon, but they are not the best choice when talking to someone we care about face to face.

If you’re like us, cutting back on questions will feel like quitting coffee. Easy to talk about, hard to do. But we don’t have to overthink it: when we’re concerned enough to have one of those talks, start by saying something true (“Homework is a pain …”) and see where it leads.

In my conversation with my son, during which I asked zero questions, I managed to reflect what he was saying, and even, in a couple cases, put words to what he wasn’t saying. When I did that, he would nod his head and agree with me. Imagine that.

Finally, after we had each said our piece, and there had been a period of silence, he looked up with a slightly uncomfortable expression … “Is there some question I’m supposed to be answering now?” When I assured him there wasn’t, he said, “I’ve heard you.” And he had.

[Originally posted in the Parenting On The Peninsula blog.]

Time To Reflect

[Originally posted on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog, where Anghelika and I will be blogging every Monday!]

Parents don’t have time. Everybody knows it. Singles and DINK*s know that when their friends produce offspring, the relationship is going to change: kids become the dominant concern in young families, and that’s the way it should be. There simply isn’t time for all that we did before we had little people in the home. But it isn’t only relationships outside the family that suffer when we become parents; our own parenting is threatened by lack of time.

We are going to risk the suggestion that busy parents add one more thing to the schedule: time to reflect. That’s right: add a little nothing. Clear some time in the schedule to just think. Without thoughtful reflection on the choices we make as parents, it’s easy to fall for parenting fads, bow to academic peer pressure, or simply fail to choose anything at all.

Parenting is no place for passivity. It’s no fun looking back on your child’s first 15 years of life and wishing you’d thought something through more. We need to find time to process what we want for our kids, and for our families. We don’t want to scare anyone: children are resilient … every parent makes good and bad choices, and children have a great capacity to survive our not-always-great parenting. But since our choices are important for the formation of our children and family, we have to give ourselves time to reflect on them. Think you can’t slow down enough to think? It’s easier to make a slight change in our schedule now than it is to undo a decision years after it was made.

What does it mean to reflect? It may look like external processing with other parents, teachers or friends. This can be enormously encouraging as we learn new perspectives and get support for the challenges we are facing today. Opportunities abound for this kind of reflection at parent ed. events at schools, conversations on the playground, or over a coffee. Take the opportunities that present themselves!

If it’s easier for you to process things internally, then all it takes is a quiet moment. It doesn’t take much. Let’s try it ….

Let’s say it took you 5 minutes to read this post. Now, instead of jumping to the next site on the web, or the next thing on your mind, just pause for a few minutes and let these ideas sink in. In fact, whenever you make time to read a post on your favorite blog, practice taking equal time to reflect on it. This may slow you down a bit; you may not get through as much as usual. But by giving yourself time to reflect, you will find that some ideas will stick better than others, and your choices will become more confident.

Where do you carve out time to reflect on your parenting plan? Who are your go-to dialog partners? What pressing concern could you share with a friend over coffee today?

*Double Income No Kids!

Failure has its benefits

Babies and parents form a perfect teaching and learning environment, one in which perfection is not required. After birth, the natural connectedness and comfort of the womb gives way to an environment where connection and comfort must be actively provided by a parent — it takes more effort. Usually the joy that attends the arrival of the child is enough to keep parents close and attentive, and that bond will grow with the healthy parent, who responds quickly and easily to the child’s cries. But this easy connection does not last.

Around the time that a mom and dad start to return ‘to the real world’ and begin to try to balance parenthood with their other adult responsibilities, everybody’s patience will be tested–especially baby. They’ll cry a little bit longer … and mom or dad will be a bit slower to respond. This will feel like failure. Yet, as long as these failures aren’t catastrophic or capricious, but come gradually as the child and parents acclimate to the developing family situation, then these failures have their purpose.

When we fail as parents, new perspectives are allowed to grow in the infant: trust, patience, self-confidence, and other self-sustaining strategies. And in a healthy rhythm of family life, these new perspectives will always be balanced with knowledge that one is cared for and loved, that connection and comfort will come. Imperfections in the family help a child learn important lessons about their own resources, and how to endure life outside of paradise.  The gradual but inevitable distancing, the inevitable testing separation, is a part of being human, and should not be feared. In fact, parents ought to get used to it, as this is the one constant in parenting. It ends only when your child becomes an adult.

Don’t get us wrong. We aren’t encouraging parents to quickly teach infants the cold, hard facts of a solitary life. Parents should respond appropriately to whatever needs their infant communicates: for holding, for feeding, for quiet solitude, for play. But given that most parents will do this to the best of their ability, we think it’s worth remembering that failure is normal, and the experience of it is an important part of a child’s development.