My wife and I have three children, two of them teenagers. Any success I share in raising them is due in part to persistence and hope. But as we all know, parenting can be a grind.
My mother once said the easiest job in the world is telling other people how to raise their kids. Books, radio call-in shows, podcasts and seminars abound for every perceived malady, condition and bump in the road that kids face. Listen to enough of it, and you’re spinning like a weather vane. So I took my mom’s statement, focused on ways to meet my kids where they are and realize this now: If actively involved in a kid’s life, the parent is the expert. Who knows a child better than his or her parent?
That doesn’t mean the job is any less tough.
My parenting success with our oldest and most strong-willed son has had its ups and downs. In between the hugs, our 15-year-old son has accused me of being unfair and a bad listener. There are slumps in which I can’t seem to connect with him. But he can be wise beyond his years when I get him talking. I’ve learned over the years that he can be contemplative, so I try to engage him with an activity that leads to a discussion rather than a distraction.
A couple of years ago, for example, I bought a chess set and placed it on a table in our living room. Once every few months, I’d ask our kids whether they wanted to learn how to play. No takers. But they also didn’t get a lecture from me about how chess is a game everyone should learn. Last spring, of his own desire, my eldest son joined his school’s chess club. During the summer, he finally asked me whether I wanted to play, and now we’ve been playing once a week since. I limit my comments to applauding his good moves and wait for him to tell me about school, girls or whatever. So far, there’s been nothing earthshaking to report. But he knows at least once a week that he has my attention for an hour.
Another thing I tried recently was thanks to my friend, who has a master’s degree in organizational psychology from Columbia University. He recently developed a personality assessment, and I thought my son and I could give it a try. The test isn’t designed for kids my son’s age, but I thought it might get us talking. When my son and I reviewed his test results, he agreed with most of the findings. For example, his motivations indicated that when he was at his worst he “was a person who didn’t need help from others.” The results also showed us that a possible shared interest of ours was “exploring a hidden talent.”
The test wasn’t a revelation for me. But it was a way, like playing chess, to start a discussion. I saw my eldest son’s test as a creative way to spark a conversation and keep it going, which it has. And as a dad of teens, I will try almost anything to spark a conversation with them.
In my years as a dad, I’ve read a lot of parenting books and articles and found some advice from Ray Guarendi, a clinical psychologist and father of 10, helpful. According to Guarendi, parents often lament the fact that they’ve tried everything to reach a child, but nothing works. His counsel is “an approach is only as good as its follow-through.”
That reminded me of a few years ago, when my daughter’s favorite pastime was playing with her dolls and dollhouse or Jellycat animals. I wanted to spend time with her. I grew up playing war games, football and building model planes; I wasn’t sure how much fun I’d be in and around the dollhouse. But I kept showing up with excitement, and we would role-play with the dolls inside her dollhouse and make up skits for her Jellycats. By dropping what I was doing to repeatedly have fun with her on her terms, it showed her that what was important to her was important to me.
I’m far from perfect. But my efforts are underpinned by love and a desire that my kids care about others more than themselves. I’ll bet if you’ve read this far you feel the same way about your children. Searching for ways to connect with my kids confirmed that I have to trust my expertise and be persistent. What about you?
Bill Perry is a communications consultant and freelance writer in Western New York. His company MARCH 24 Media helps executives and companies build their brand.
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