No parent is perfect. Certainly my wife and I have not been perfect parents, but I think we have succeeded in doing what is most important, which is creating an atmosphere of openness between us and our kids. Most parents want more than anything to do a good job, but I work with parents all the time who, despite their intentions, just do not know how to make that connection. Here are some ways to do it:
1. Acknowledge reality. If your child is 16 and you have a bad relationship with him, it is unlikely you are going to be able to make dramatic changes in a short period of time. Much about a child’s personality is set very early on, so when it comes to relating to our kids, there are some windows that will close if we do not get through them quickly enough. Do not beat yourself up over past mistakes, but do not fool yourself into believing that all wrongs can be righted. Some cannot, and that’s why parenting is as important as it is. And it’s why it is critical that you do the right thing now.
2. Do not give up hope. Whether your child is older or younger, assume that you can do some things as a parent that will make a difference. Studies show that the #1 influence on children – even teenage children – is still their parents. If you have an older child, no matter how much he/she acts like they don’t care about what you think, they do.
3. Don’t try too hard. Relationships start seeming like something other than relationships when they are forced. You may feel desperate to communicate better with your child, but don’t allow too much of that to come out toward the child.
4. Be present. Presence is different from proximity. You can be in close proximity to someone and not be present to them. Being present means giving your attention. Listen to the things your children say. Make eye contact with them. And remember – most of the time being present involves being proximate. Go to their games and concerts. Be their cheerleader in their big moments.
5. Say the words. Don’t just act like you love them. Tell them. Always. Constantly. Catch them doing right things and point it out and tell them how much you appreciate and value them and how much they mean to you. If you’re not the kind of person who is comfortable with this, get over it. It is your job as a parent to do all you can not to pass down your weaknesses to your children. Do it for the sake of your children and your grandchildren, because if you do not express your affection for your children, they will likely not express it for their children either, and by that time you will be old enough to regret your mistakes.
6. Speak gently. Children need guidance and this does not change as they get older. But as children age, they gain a greater sense of themselves and we must be ever more delicate. If they tell you something they think is funny, but you believe it is inappropriate, you might think twice about getting angry and sharply rebuking them in the moment and embarrassing them. This could be far more effective if saved for a conversation later, perhaps before bed, or in the car, when it is less immediate. When you speak to your children think to yourself, “Would I speak this way to a colleague at work, or to a friend?” Your child is your child, but they are separate from you, and they deserve the same respect you would give anyone else.
7. Don’t be critical. This is closely related to #6, but deserves its own slot. There is nothing you can ever accomplish with criticism that you cannot accomplish better with patience, gentleness, and grace. Your child doesn’t need to hear how far short she is falling. She needs to hear how much you love her, and that because of your love for her, you desire that she be all she can be. Then you can tell her how much faith you have in her that she really can reach the heights you dream for her, reminding her always that even when she doesn’t reach those heights, your love for her remains completely unchanged.
(to be continued…)