Often heard from parents of University students that they do not listen to them. It must all be because when the very same children were young, the parents did not have time and energy to listen to them. Obviously, now one cannot expect the children to listen to the very same parents on becoming adults. Communication play a big role in Parent-child relationship, especially in the modern society.
Being an at-home father and having brought up a daughter and a son through their teenage in Canada and also having observed behaviours of many parents and children, some of the aspects that came to my mind are discussed below.
A family and a home is not a private limited company, but is a public company where the parents and children, all have equal stakes. Along with the stakes comes duties and responsibilities. It is mandatory for the parents to ensure that they do their bit and also that the children do theirs. Making the children do chores at home, making them participate in all family activities, ensuring that their academic pursuits are successful, encouraging them to pursue their hobbies and interest and also their sporting interests and above all communicating with them to achieve the aforesaid is what the parents have got to do.
The rules and ideas suggested below have worked with our family, earlier in the Indian Army environment and now in the Canadian environment. It is neither a remedy or pill for success nor a ‘Dummies for Good Parenting’. You may accept some, modify some and reject some, based on your judgment.
Show Interest. Convey to the child that you are interested and involved and you are always available for help. Whenever the child speaks to you, make sure that you turn off the television or put the newspaper down. Avoid taking a telephone call however important it may be, as for most of us, nothing can be more important than our children.
Converse in Private. The best communication between you and the child will occur when others are not around. It would be good idea to take the child out for a drive or to quiet corner in park or a coffee shop. Many a times the child would like to discuss matters in the presence of either the mother or the father or at times both. Our son opens out his mind and discusses all his thoughts and ideas while I drive him to school or for his swimming/ guitar/ tennis lessons. He never discusses these in front of his mother or sister, fearing ridicule. Our daughter identifies with her mother better.
Do Not Dictate. Putting a child down, especially in front of others, is both embarrassing and disgusting for any child. This will lead only to resentment and hostility, never good communication. Try to physically and mentally get down to the child’s level and then talk.
Never React. When you hear about a behavior or an incident which makes you angry, do not attempt communication until you regain your cool, because you cannot be objective until then. If you ever admonish the child immediately, you can be rest assured that the child will never report any such instances in the future. Always analyse the situation and try and get maximum details from the child and may be at times from the teachers and friends, and then deliver your judgment. Assist the child in planning some specific steps to the solution and along with it provide or suggest remedial actions or methodology as to how to deal with similar situations in the future in a more dignified and mature manner.
Be a Patient Listener. In case you are tired after a day’s work, you will have to make an extra effort to be an active listener. Coax and encourage your child to bring out more details. Teenagers tend to use slang and at times un-parliamentary language in their narration. Do not ever hang on to these words as the true picture will be lost immediately. You must advise the child to curb his profanity at a later time. Listen carefully and politely. Do not interrupt the child when he is trying to tell his story. Be as courteous to your child as you would be to your best friend.
Preach the Least. Preaching is never helpful in getting communication open and keeping it open. Never come out with sob stories about the difficulties and lack of facilities you had in your childhood. Avoid using the lines like “You only talk when I am done”; “I know what is best for you”; “Do What I say”; “I never spoke like this to my parents”; etc.
Reporting Procedure. Always encourage the child to speak to you about what happened at school, at an outing for a movie with friends, a party etc. Always be informed as to where the child is going, who all are accompanying and the back-at-home time. Your questioning technique should be such that the child will inform you all these details prior to even planning an outing with friends. On return from the event, make sure that you obtain a feedback on the activity. Never ask why but always ask what happened. You really need to prod to get the teenager speak about it and what you get will always be the tip of the iceberg, rest you got to extrapolate. Your reactions should be such as to ensure that the child reports such events, without asking, in future. Nowadays when I pick up the children after an event, on entering the car, they start off with their briefing.
Encourage, Accept and Appreciate. Show that you accept the child himself, regardless of what he has or has not done. Always appreciate the child for the 93% marks he scored than admonishing him for the 7% he lost. You got to encourage him and advise him as to how he can do better. Say a word of appreciation like “Thank you” or “You did a nice job”, when the child does any chores at home. Never use put-down words or statements like “Stupid, that makes no sense at all” or “What do you know, you are only a child”. Once when our son made a cup of coffee and brought it up to my table. I took a sip and I heard our son say “Welcome”. I realised my folly that I had failed to appreciate his effort and the least he expected was a “Thank You”. In India we take many such actions for granted and have never developed the habit of appreciating, the idea being driven in that if you appreciate, it will spoil the child.
Participative Decision Making. Involve the children in as much decision making as possible like the colour scheme for the walls of the home, flowers to be planted in the garden, selection of the restaurant and menu for a family dinner, family summer vacation, etc. Try and accommodate all their aspirations, at times against your own interest and wish; you may not get such an opportunity later in life. During our summer vacation to Chicago, our children wanted to go sky-diving. The main point of interest being video graphed during the free fall without the helmets (wearing helmets in the state of Illinois is not mandatory, but wearing goggles are). On reaching the sky-diving center we realised that our son was not eligible to participate being below 18 years of age. So the mother and the daughter sky-dived and the father-son duo decided to undertake the adventure after our son turned 18.
Cultural and Family Barriers. Try not to bring in any cultural and family reasons regarding the way the teenagers dress, the friends they interact with and activities they are involved in. Many parents persuade their children from wearing short dresses or going out with friends as being ‘Against our culture’. This tends to make the teenagers rebellious and many end up taking rash and illogical decisions, more to prove to their friends that they are liberated, not bound by their parent’s culture or religious beliefs. During a summer barbeque party at an Indian friend’s place, a teenage girl was surprised to find our daughter in shorts. She inquired as to whether the parents had no objection to the dress. Our daughter said that she was used to wearing shorts back home in India as she grew up in a military environment. The teenager said that she was not permitted to wear shorts, but she always wore one inside her jeans to school and on reaching the school would take off her jeans. It is not an uncommon sight around high schools where girls come in fully covered from head to toe and after a few minutes you find them at the smokers’ corner wearing the skimpiest dress.
Parent Teacher Interactions. “How is my child doing?” is a standard question every parent asks and the standard reply by the teacher will be “very well”. Many fail to understand that it is “very well” to the effort put in by the child and the parent’s involvement. Rather, it would be more prudent to enquire about the behavioral and leaning aspect of the child and the topics being covered in future in the class. This way one can the least contribute to the child’s development.
Remove all Barriers to Communication. Modern gizmos like the Cell phone, Ipod, Ipad, hand-held gaming consoles etc are always barriers to communication. Children fail to listen to what is being said and to observe what is happening around. One must lay down strict time slots for their use and never allow them to be used during any family time: during the meals, family outings, get-together, etc. The rule at our home or in the car is that when in company of any family member, no ear phones are permitted. In case music is to be played, it should be audible for all.
Sex Education. The most difficult subject for many parents to broach with their teenage children, but once you take the first bold step towards it, it becomes easier and would always be a rewarding experience. Studies indicate that adolescents whose parents talk to them about sex tend to be less sexually active and more likely to use an effective means of contraception. Many parents are not able to provide all the information about sex that young people need. Only a few ever got a good idea from their parents that helped them talk about sexual issues with their girlfriend/ boyfriend. Parents must be the primary source of information about sexual and reproductive health for their children and not what they learn from their friends or through media or from the internet. Our son’s favourite line being “All my thirst for sex was quenched the day I discussed it with my dad.”
We humans are a rare species when it comes to parenting. We are conflicted between excessive care and a willingness to let them loose. We are eager to be their friends, but also to set firm boundaries. We want all their problems to vanish in a blink of an eye, but we also want to prepare them to face hardships on their own. We suffer when they make mistakes, but we don’t let them see our suffering. All these paradoxical behaviors build the barriers we face when communicating with our children.