A very good friend of mine who has raised four boys once gave me some great advice. She said to me, “If you don’t get it when they walk through the door, you’re never going to get it.” At the time, she was validating my choice to stay home with the kids, and the importance of being there when they walk through the door at the end of the day. Kids have a tendency to show and share with you the details of the day right when they walk in from school. Even if they don’t verbalize everything, you can catch their facial expressions, evaluate their mood, and get a general sense of how things went. Many kids will verbally unload as they grab a snack and dump their backpacks on the floor. If you are able to physically and emotionally be present for them at the time, it can provide you a goldmine of information and insight. If you can’t be home, plan to call them from work each day and block out a set time in your schedule. Even if you get one word answers over the phone, kids will come to rely on the consistency of that exchange and it can become a real source of comfort and support.
While I was raising little kids at the time, I had also worked as a family therapist in an adolescent residential facility, and was well aware that raising tweens and teenagers is one of if not the most challenging parts of parenting. As I now am in the thick of parenting emerging adolescents, I see now that life – jobs, activities, meetings, demands of other children – can make “being there” when they walk through the door extremely difficult if not impossible. What is vital, however, is making the time so that a connection can happen. So, how can we as parents, make a connection with our kids while trying to meet the demands of schedules and family life?
Let me first say that little league, music lessons, swim meets, basketball games, and general kid activities DOES NOT equal family time or quality time. All of those hours spent watching your child compete or perform is in no way shape or form a replacement for good old-fashioned time spent as a family. Unfortunately, as parents, we over book activities, games, etc., and then find ourselves depleted when we are home or do have time as a family. But I digress. (That’s another post for another day).
1. Drive as often as possible. Offer to help in the car pool. Drive them to the bus stop. Pick them up from school once in a while. Pick up from the dance or party. I am constantly amazed by how much information I can learn about my boys when we are alone in a car. It’s less pressure to talk, and there isn’t the whole face to face thing, which can be intimidating for a tween or teen. Not allowing electronics is key and super helpful. I also enjoy driving with my sons and their friends. They start talking to each other and before you know it, it’s almost like they forget I’m there. In just one 15 minute ride, I have heard about crushes, bullies at school, their favorite classes and teachers, and who they sit with on the bus.
2. Have them help you around the house. Sometimes, just engaging in mundane chores with them brings out all kids of comments. I feel like I can casually ask questions like, “so who are you sitting with at lunch these days?”, “is there anyone you’re having problems with at school?”, “who do you think your closest friend is at school?”, “who do you think your closest friend is at school that’s a girl?”.
3. Make a date with them solo. Go out to lunch, go to a movie together, walk the dog, stroll around the bookstore. When I was a kid, my father used to always be available to take any or all of us out for breakfast on a Saturday morning. There was no pressure. You either went or you didn’t, but we always knew the offer was there every weekend. Sometimes we’d have serious talks, and sometimes it was just casual talk, but it was quality time.
4. Create a sacred time zone. Designate some bulk of time in the week as family time. Whether it’s an hour on a Sunday afternoon, or Friday nights from 5-7 pm, set aside that time. Maybe you do a dinner, order a pizza, watch a movie, or play a game together, that time should not involve other friends, neighbors, or anyone other than your family. It should not involve electronics or everyone in separate spaces in the house. You can also use that time to hold family meetings, discuss or plan upcoming activities or vacations, or just check in and see how everyone’s week went.
5. Let them know your availability and stick to it. So much time at home can be spent catching up on laundry, cleaning the house, responding to emails, making phone calls. So even when we might be physically present, we are not emotionally present and focused on our kids. I find it helpful to give specific time frames when I’ll be available for them. No, we as parents do not need to be available to our kids with every beck and call. (of course, this depends on their ages and the need at hand) This helps with structure in the house, teaches kids some self-control, and assures more quality in your interactions with them.
The bottom line is that we have to as parents, get creative with how we connect with our kids, stay updated and engaged in their lives, and gain important knowledge we might need to intervene with them in a crisis. The more we can offer opportunities for connecting, the more comfortable our kids will feel to share with us – sometimes when they least expect it:).