As a parent, you often wonder what’s going on in your kids’ minds. Yet when you ask, you feel shut down or like you are only getting part of the story. So you handle it by pushing harder and creating conflict or by just not asking at all. You wait and then you try again except this time the tension has been ratcheted up. You’re laying bricks on the road to ruin and you don’t know how to stop.
There’s a better way and it involves understanding how to create the right context. The dictionary defines context as: the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed. What can you do as a parent to create an environment where your kids welcome your questions? One where they see them as an expression of your love and interest.
As a parent, one of your most important jobs is to create the context where happiness and success can flourish
Vulnerability Makes Things Real
Let’s start by discussing the concept of vulnerability. Vulnerability means loving yourself enough to have the courage to share your story. To share the real and authentic you. The idea of exposing yourself like that might terrify you. To do it you need to be able to love and accept yourself as you are. That’s pretty damn hard for you to do. I know, I let the fear cripple me for a long time.
How do you react to that fear that someone might find out who you really are? You create a persona that you think will protect you. You put up walls and hide behind them like a scared child. You eat in your car or drink with the curtains drawn or do one of a million other analogous behaviors. Or you behave as the authoritative parent who brokers no dissenting opinions. In your heart you know you are living a life that is not your own and it consumes your soul.
Another way you might manifest your fear is having difficulty asking questions. Knowledge is competence and strength and anything else is weakness. Do you have a hard time flat out admitting you don’t know something? Does it make you feel like your mother was right when she said your older brother is better than you? The fear you feel in those situations is not something you should burden your kids with. They deserve better.
So you make assertions. You state your opinions with force. But not with your peers because they might push back. A forceful enough shove might cause you to crack like the fragile porcelain figurine you are. Your kids though… You’re bigger than them and you’re the parent. They have to listen to your opinions and by god they are going to.
People wracked with self-doubt and self-loathing are the most judgmental among us. Your thought patterns offer you no hope of propelling yourself to new heights. So you take what you see as the only course of action open to you. You knock those uppity bastards off their pedestal by spewing hateful words about them. Only when they’re not around of course.
Why won’t your kid answer your questions when you ask them? Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t either. You’re just going to judge the answers and then force the right opinion down my throat. I’m not interested in sitting through an inquisition and neither is your kid. Remember, you create the context. If your kid feels like you’re the cop and they’re the suspect on a wobbly chair in a room with a bare light bulb, they will plead the fifth.
Embracing vulnerability will enrich all areas of your life. Loving and accepting yourself is the foundation on which to love and accept others. When you are vulnerable you are courageous enough to stop pretending. Forever. You give people the chance to love you as you truly are. You might think they won’t, but they will.
When you are vulnerable you are able to admit with ease that you know almost nothing. Think about the scope of the entire universe. The entire accumulated knowledge of the human race is insignificant. But we can always know more today than we did yesterday. It’s the only true path to enlightenment and wisdom. Revealing that path to your child is one of most generous gifts you can give them.
There is a time-proven way to learn more. Ask questions. It sounds simple because it is. Be the person who always asks questions. Be the person who thirsts for knowledge. The one who questions “conventional wisdom”. Be completely open to the fact that your opinions might be dead wrong. When you love yourself, you love when that happens. When you don’t, you judge yourself as an idiot for being wrong.
Your Family’s Culture is Yours to Create
Don’t blow it. Create a family culture based on appreciative inquiry. One where personal and joint exploration is the norm. Where you ask each other questions like “what would that choice create” and “what else is possible?” Wonder together how to create more of what you love. When you do, your kids will learn the power of asking questions. They will also understand that to learn more might destroy previous beliefs. Make those moments exciting and celebrate them!
Asking open-ended questions is so important. Questions where a yes or no answer will suffice will get a yes or no answer. Open-ended questions challenge your kids to analyze their answer before saying it. Let me give you an example from my own life. My older daughter is a competitive cheerleader. She’s on two teams – the last damn time that will ever happen. One is Flare and the other is Flash.
I could ask, “Which team do you like better?” That would give her the chance to respond with a one word answer. I don’t want that. It wouldn’t take long before you’d be hearing the sound of crickets. Conversations run out of gas quickly when one party is grunting single syllables.
An open ended question is, “How would you describe the difference between your two teams? ”
The second one will get a much more comprehensive answer. That answer will also provide more material to ask follow up question. Pretty soon you’ve got yourself an actual conversation happening. And it will be foster an understanding that to know each other is to love each other.
Of course, there is always the chance that your child will answer the open-ended question with a shoulder shrug and an “I dunno.” Context can expand the question to include, “I’m asking because you are one of my favorite humans and I love knowing you.”
I don’t have to explicitly state those words every time because my kids know it. They know it because of the words I use all the time and they way I treat them. There is no question about the depth of my love or my genuine interest in them as people. If someone asked you a question and you knew it was coming from a place of love you’d want to answer it and so would I. That is context that our actions and words can create.
I’m aware my kids wish I would stop asking questions sometimes. But they also know it’s one of the ways I show my love for them.
Ask Their Opinion About Real Issues
Admit to your kids when you don’t know the answer to something. Or even when you’re not sure how to handle it. Ask them for their opinion. Can you imagine what your kid would think if if you said, “I have this situation at work and I’m not sure what the best way to handle it is? What do you think I should do?” They’d be thrilled to talk through it with you and you’d be closer as a result. You might also realize they have a richer understanding of human nature than you thought.
Raising kids is challenging. There’s no manual. I’m kidding, there are a million manuals and they all say different things. Your kids grow up at a rate that can be different from your ability to understand and deal with it. You’ll faced with situations you don’t know how to best handle. Talk it out together! When you disagree, which you will, tell your kids, “I know you don’t agree with me but I know you trust that I have your best interest in mind. I don’t know if this is the right decision but it feels right to me.” Be open to revisiting when circumstances change or when you receive new information.
Be vulnerable enough to admit you don’t have all the answers. Create the opportunity to come up with solutions together.
Talk. Talk. Talk.
Lastly, just talk to your kids. Conversations about things that are real are the fabric that weaves us together.
Conversationalist are the place where ideas can be shared, opinions are challenged and common ground is found. Questions are asked and if the answer is not and readily at hand it can be sought out together.
Make your family one where you talk to each other about everything. When you share your warts with your kids they’ll know they can share theirs. When they don’t fear you judging them they will feel better about themselves. You will draw them to the safe place you create and they will share with you. That’s what will create the engaging conversations on which you can build a beautiful relationship.
It Works Both Ways
When you create a place where it’s safe to ask questions, kids are going to ask questions of you. They are going to challenge you because it’s safe to do so. Your job is to set boundaries with your children and help them understand when things are none of their damn business. That works both ways. As they get older they will want more privacy as well. It’s a normal part of developing into their own unique and amazing people.
Bumping up against those boundaries is part of growing up. We should encourage that because its a characteristic that will help them through our their lives. When you treat it as a threat your kids will learn that they need to color inside the lines. I want my kids to tear up the paper and paint on the (metaphorical) wall.
Teach your kids how to balance their inquisitiveness with a person’s natural desire for privacy. When we respect others, they will respect us and walls will start to come down between us. It’s ironic that respecting a person’s privacy will make them feel less of a need for it in the first place.
Effective and loving parenting will create an environment where conversations flourish and questions abound.