As conscious parents working to create a better world, we know that the work – and joy – of it begins at home. Here are seven steps that offer you a foundation for clear and healthy communication with your most precious focus; your children.
1. Honor your kid’s questions with answers.
If your child is mature enough to formulate a question on a given topic, she is mature enough to get an honest answer from you. That answer should always be age appropriate, and within your comfort zone.
Sometimes an honest answer is “I don’t know,” or “That’s not a question I’m ready to answer.” If either of those are the case, follow up appropriately.
If you don’t know, you can always make it a research project for you and your kid to engage in together.
If you don’t feel comfortable answering a question because it gets into territory you feel conflicted about, own your boundary around it (see step 4), and let your child know when you would be willing to revisit the topic – whether it’s in a couple of days, or when your kid is in the fifth grade, or when you’ve sorted your stuff out. Always be responsible and proactive with the follow-up.
Bonus idea: Click here for directions on creating a “Question Box.”
2. Own your feelings.
Don’t make your discomfort your kid’s “fault.” If the question he has asked makes your hair stand on end and your face flush, know that your embarrassment, your discomfort, or your anger.
A danger inherent in parent-child communication is that your kid will take on your shame, your discomfort, or your unease. Or, in cases where a kid is a “mismatcher”, they may act out in opposition to your stance. If you don’t want your kids blindly falling into – or acting out in response to – your wounding, patterning, imprinting or behaviors, own your internal conflicts.
3. What isn’t said speaks more loudly than what IS.
Ignore it and it’ll go away? Not a chance. But sooner or later, your kid(s) will – especially if you’re unable to answer the questions brought to you. Sex, drugs, money; they’re all topics that may have been avoided in your family of origin. But do you want your kids getting answers from the same unreliable sources you did? (On the schoolyard, TV, your parents, the government?)
The conspicuous silences in your communication are an OUT LOUD statement – about what’s inappropriate, shameful, unmentionable. If you want your kids getting different messages than what you were handed, make sure you’re giving voice to your opinions.
Normalize the topics that make you want to freeze up. Talk with your friends, talk with your trusted advisors (your coach, your priest, your therapist, your doctor), talk with your parents, talk with your peers. Know that there’s a whole world of information out there. If you feel conflicted about your own ideas, educate yourself about different views.
If money was a hidden topic in your family and you feel that hasn’t served you in your quest for financial literacy, give your kids a head start by bringing them into alignment with your financial values.
If you want your kids to know that sex is a good thing to have clarity about, model it by having values-based conversations with your kids about how to define their own sexual values.
With your nonjudgmental guidance and conscientious modeling, this process can begin consciously before your kids are even bringing direct question to you for answers.
Bonus Idea: Use my Sexual Ethics questionnaire for a tool that will help you find a starting place for these discussions.
4. Own your boundaries.
We all need appropriate boundaries. Modeling boundaries is, in my opinion, one of the most resourceful gifts you can offer your kids. One of the best way to offer boundary awareness to your kids is to model healthy boundaries in your interactions with them.
This means that you have not only the right, but the responsibility to say “stop!” when your wee one is hurting you, to close the door when you need a minute to yourself, to go for a run on a daily basis – no matter how needy others might be feeling.
Your healthy boundary also makes a clear distinction, and allows you to own your limitations or discomfort. In the course of a conversation or other interaction with your kids, you are bound to occasionally come up against the edges of your comfort zone. In these moments, it creates clarity to own your boundary, and make it clear that any discomfort you feel is due to your own process, and not something that your young-one is doing wrong.
5. Respect your child’s boundaries.
Healthy boundaries go both ways. Another element of boundary in parenting that is all-too-often overlooked is this one; if you want your kids to know that their boundaries are to be respected, you must respect your kid’s “no.”
This can be tricky, but it must be worked out.
For example, sharing is a great value to instill. However, I know how I’d feel if someone came into my office and said “You aren’t using your cell phone right now. Let Joe use it.” My response would be along the lines of “Well, I don’t lend out my cell phone, but Joe is welcome to use the house phone.”
Yet, often parents will enforce sharing to such a degree that it can erode a kid’s sense of control. Negotiate with your young-one. Create agreed upon rules about sharing, such as designating certain items as “special” ones that they will never be asked to share.
With touch-related boundaries, it may be the most important to respect our kid’s voice. If little Aaron doesn’t like being grabbed and kissed by Aunt Joan, or tickled by his cousins, help him to voice his boundary.
Helping to set a boundary with Aunt Joan may be an uncomfortable moment, but everyone is sure to learn something in it, and Aaron is going to know that he never has to be touched in a way that’s not comfortable for him in order to make someone else feel better.
If we want our kids to have the power of knowing that boundaries are to be respected, we need to both model firm boundaries for ourselves and our kids, and respect our children when they place a boundary that is reasonable.
6. Respectful, loving touch fosters connection! Stay embodied.
Kids listen better when they feel safe. (We all do.) They also communicate better when they know you aren’t mad at them. (We all do.) Creating appropriate, loving connection through physical touch can help both parties stay present in an interaction.
There are many different modes for communication. Different types and levels of physical engagement are appropriate to different settings.
If your child enjoys horsing around, sometimes breaking the tension with a little tickling, wrestling or clowning around is totally appropriate. Or, sometimes massaging your kid’s neck while you chat might be just the right thing.
If your little one is feeling sad, ask if he wants a hug. If your child is feeling tender or vulnerable, it can be great to offer to just hold your kid while he cries. If that’s too much, or not desired, you can offer your hand for holding.
Most importantly, pay attention to your child’s physiological responses, and respond accordingly. If your kid prefers sitting side-to-side instead of face-to-face, talk while sitting on the couch.
One of my daughters loves to have sit-down meetings with her parents. She’s the younger kid, and loves all the attention being on her for the time that we give it. My older daughter, on the other hand, prefers a casual chat while in the car, out on a walk, or her favorite – while shopping.
The point is, every kid is different, with different needs, comfort levels, and desires regarding touch, embodiment and process. Pay attention to what makes your kid more comfortable, and communication will get easier.
Another way to stay embodied is to remember to breathe. If things get stressful, consciously choose to relax your body. Breath into the moment, and you will be more likely to respond the moment that is occurring, rather than reacting to how your dad responded when you brought up the same issue, and you were in the seat that your son is in.
There are two benefits to this practice; the first is that you will be more relaxed, which is a positive thing in and of itself. The second is that your child’s body will respond to your relaxation by matching it.
Whiling remaining conscious and respectful of boundary, connect with your kids on a physical level while you communicate with them. And, stay engaged with your own physiological center.
7. The model is the message.
“Do what I say, not what I do,” doesn’t work. Your kids believe you. They watch you. They look up to you. They learn from you. And, actions speak so much louder than words.
When my clients say demoralizing things about themselves, my standard response is “How would you feel if your kid did (or said, felt or thought) that? Because, she’s going to.” Your kids will, consciously or unconsciously, emulate your modeling.
In this way, self-care is taking care of your children. Your ability to take care of yourself is one of the best foundational messages you can offer your kids. If you don’t want your kids to smoke, quit smoking. If you are having a hard time quitting, talk with your kids about it.
When you make a commitment to shifting a pattern of your own behavior, you can also enroll your kid’s support. This is another opportunity to model resilient skills for your kids. Ask for the help and support you need. Explain why shifting the pattern is hard for you. Use it as an opportunity to educate your kids on good choice-making, using yourself as an example.
Transparency and integrity are areas that you may also choose to model. “I only smoke when I’m away from my kids,” may seem like a good way to limit the damage, but how would you feel if your kid said “Well, I only smoke when I’m away from you.”
When you tell your kids not to get in the car with anyone who’s drinking, and then drive them home from a party after you’ve had a beer, you’re sending a mixed message. It’s confusing, and builds in not only the space for justification in the particular (well, Jo isn’t drunk, so I guess it’s okay to get a ride with her…), but also the room for justification in other areas.
Do you obfuscate? Do you outright lie to your kids? If so, you are ultimately undermining your own authority. How do you think your kids will feel when they find out that you did inhale? If you lie to your kids, or if your behaviors and your words don’t match up, you are giving your kids a template for behaving in the same way. If you value transparency and honesty, model it.
Are you being a resourceful and integrated model for your kids? Here’s a good guideline; ask yourself, ‘If my kid were engaging in the behavior I’m engaging in, how would I feel about it?”
Bonus idea: Create a family charter of agreements.
Sustainable Family Values – How Values Grow.
You are always modeling your values. The tricky part is that we often have two sets of values – idealized values (the values we like to think we have) and applied values (the values we actually live by). If what you think you believe, and how you act in your day to day don’t match up, you’re out of alignment with your ideal values.
You can shift your values into alignment by changing your behaviors to match up with your beliefs. The steps I have offered in this article offer a great starting point for the work of coming into alignment.
The more consciously you engage with living your values, the more aligned your modeling will be with your ideal life. This is a true win/win situation; as you model the behavior that you would most want to see your children emulate, you begin living the best possible version of your life.
Bonus Idea: Define your family’s shared values.