I know what you’re thinking: He’s writing a book about raising two boys, and he includes a section on communication? I thought this was supposed to be nonfiction.
Hey: Just because something is important to our story as a family, doesn’t mean we’re necessarily good at it.
This certainly isn’t for lack of effort. I have tried every which way from Sunday to stress communication with my kids:
- Ask for what you want.
- Let other people know how you’re feeling.
- If somebody’s doing something that bothers you, tell them (preferably nicely).
- If you do something wrong, admit it.
I’ve used all the tricks: If you keep saying, “Gee those just-baked cookies smell good,” you can dream about them all you want, but they’re getting wrapped for the school fundraiser. If you directly ASK for one—assuming we didn’t just come back from ice cream—it’s yours.
It makes sense that the kids would have trouble asking for what they want. Their early experiences taught them two contradictory lessons:
- You can’t have what you want (in that context, safety and stability).
- Adults are not to be trusted, so if you want something, you have to figure out how to get it on your own.
We’ve spent a lot of time on this last one—in the first year, Daveon regularly raided the refrigerator rather than just telling me he was hungry—and I think we’ve chipped away at at least a few layers. If you end up in relationship with one of my kids in the future, drop me a line and let me know how they do with the asking thing.
Communication rule #2: If you are sick, or tired, or stressed, or whatever: SPEAK UP. If you act like a nut, you will get busted for acting like a nut—that’s just how we roll. But if there’s stuff going on that’s making it hard for you to avoid nuttiness—a headache or an exam tomorrow or a couple nights of poor sleep—I will cut you a good deal of slack. But I can do that only if you tell me what’s going on.
As I like to say: Of the million jobs I signed up for when I became a parent, mind-reader was not one of them.
Which brings me to the most challenging—and maybe most important—aspect of communication I have tried to get across to the kids: If you mess up, admit it. I know this is hard for all kids—but for kids who got bounced around a lot, I think it brings up a particular terror. Messing up = moving out, another separation, another loss. This is what the “kid mind” believes, even though the moves had nothing to do with their behavior. So it becomes even more difficult to get the point across that everybody messes up, it’s normal and OK, and the best thing to do is just let someone know what happened.
To encourage this kind of communication, I try to do two things: One, when I myself mess up with the kids (shocking, I know): Come clean quickly and simply. Walk the walk. And two: Adjust consequences for behavior that’s reported honestly. If you come clean about something that would normally be a level 5 crime—say, the time one kid filched a few dollars out of the petty cash stash—because of your honesty, we’ll move the consequences down to a level 2 or 3. Or even, as in this particular case, drop all consequences entirely.
There’s another aspect to our communication life. I have and continue to regularly check in about—and ask the kids to talk to me about—where their heads are about alcohol, other drugs, and sex. I really encourage them to let me know if/when they feel they want to explore any of the above—and certainly if they already have. I try to explain that the goal is not to then punish them, but to see where the thoughts/behaviors are coming from and decide what the next steps might be, to best ensure that they continue to move forward in a healthy way physically, mentally, and emotionally.
We’ll see how this all plays out. Hopefully our communication story won’t turn out to be fiction in the end.