Your life as a parent starts with your child tied to your hip. You carry them everywhere, feed them six times a day, and rock them to sleep, sometimes more than once, every night for the first year of their lives. They hold your hand through their first steps, come to you when they fall, and run to your room at night, right around the time they are sure the monster underneath their bed is going to make his nightly visit. It’s beautiful when it’s happening. It’s incredible, but it would be hard to make the claim that it’s not exhausting. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you might find yourself making the case for how things might be simpler as they start to grow up. You won’t need to lift the spoon that feeds them, you will not have to supervise their sleep to ensure that they aren’t eaten by the shadows. You’ll have time to yourself again. The problem with time to yourself? Your children aren’t there for it.
If it has not happened already, chances are, there will come a time when you will want to be with your children more, but what you will find is that pre-teens and teenagers don’t want to spend the same sort of time with you that they did when they were little. For a variety of reasons, it can unfortunately sometimes be very difficult having conversations with your child when they get to be of a certain age. If you want quality time with your teenager, like you had when they were toddlers, here are some steps you can take to help you get there.
- Put away the screens.
I don’t need to tell you that we are a people enamored with their phones. Look around any heavily populated room, and it is a safe bet that you will find the majority of the people you are sharing the space with off in their own world of glowing glass. Phones aren’t all bad—neither are televisions, video games, computers, or tablets, but they do all share the common tendency of taking their users out of the room, into the world of cyber space. If you are a parent looking to spent time with your child, that isn’t were you want them to be, and it isn’t where you want to be either.
Make a rule. It can be a daily rule, weekly, or biweekly-however it fits into your family’s schedule is fine, but make the rule, and stick to it. No screen time whatsoever for x amount of minutes, on x amount of days. If watching a movie as a family is what you as a unit decide to do, its ok, but keep in mind that there are a plethora of other ways to make a regular night staying in something to remember. For example, I can assure you that puzzles are actually more entertaining than you remember. And a board game like monopoly can spice up your night with an element of friendly competition that might just become a ritual in your household.
Whatever you do, remember this: much of your child’s world takes place on the internet. If you are going to remove them from that medium, even for only a while, it is your responsibility to make sure that you remain engaged, and in the moment. Don’t think about what’s happening at work, or God forbid, what’s happening on your own phone. Think about how tremendous it is that the child you brought home from the hospital a decade or so ago is now standing next to you smiling, saying things, playing a game that you played at their age. Family time can be truly joyous, so be sure to take a moment to soak it in, smile to yourself (perhaps discreetly so as not to make things weird) and remember that regardless of how hectic things can tend to get, this is what you are working for in the first place: time with your family. So take some, and enjoy it. Your own phone can wait, the same as theirs can.
2. Make memories.
One of the perhaps unfortunate realities of life is that we rarely know when we are in a moment that we might look back upon for years to come. Parenthood is full of those little moments. Maybe it is silly, or even futile to try and create one of these experiences, but that regardless, they are happening all around us. While scrutinizing every second of your life to determine its memory making potential could be maddening, and certainly counter intuitive to the objective, there are other ways that you can maximize the potential of the little moments. It can be as small as smiling at your child out of the blue from time to time, reminding them of what can sometimes be easy to forget: you love them unconditionally, and you love even being in their presence.
There are also other things you can do that will turn bonding and communicating into a regular fixture of your day. When I was still at home with my parents, there were a string of rules pertaining to the dinner table, which at the time felt silly, but now I am grateful for. They were fairly standard rules—you might have had them at your house as well—but they were followed, and because of that, effective. The first was simple. We eat together as a family, in one room, at one table. No exceptions. Life can get crazy—when it does, the need to eat at your desk, or in your room, or in your lower moments, over the kitchen sink, might at times feel pressing, or even necessary. I can’t know your situation for certain of course, but I think that in most situations you will find that you can spare fifteen to twenty minutes for dinner.
Keep in mind that your children are likely facing the same time crunching pressures as you. They might have sports, clubs, homework, friends, or any of the other many areas of life that demand our attention, and to them each and every one of them feels urgent. Hold true to the rule, but respect the fact that they have other things to do, and that that might be the source of anxiety for them. Dinner together will not go well if you minimize the significance of what is going on in their lives.
Another rule at my parent’s table was something we have already discussed. No cell phones. The reasons for this are probably self-apparent at this point. Just remember that your child probably won’t like this rule, and you at times might not like it either, but it is an important one. If you’re checking your email, while your child is checking their Facebook, it isn’t much of a family dinner.
The third and final thing we did was more of an activity than a rule. Before any of us were allowed to eat, we would go around the table and share what we simply enough referred to as our “good thing of the day.” It’s exactly what it sounds like. We would all go and share the best thing that happened to us since last we saw one another at breakfast. Sometimes it was small things, a decent grade on a test, or a surprisingly appetizing school lunch. Other times, it was bigger news. My good thing of the day was once that a girl I asked to prom said yes. I am now married to that girl, and we have a child.
Good thing of the day is nice, and I would certainly recommend it for your household, but I think it could be worthwhile to make an addition: Bad thing of the day. It might be a strange thing to introduce to the dinner table at first, but I believe that it is important to open up the channels of communication. Far too often, parents are kept in the dark about the things going on in their children’s lives. Establishing an open and honest communication as a natural part of your day’s routine can work wonders in getting your children to open up, and it will make things all the more natural if they see you doing the same.
3. Let them know you.
Sometimes it is easiest to go through life playing our parts. Parents instruct, children listen. It’s for their own good. And you know what? It usually is. But sometimes it’s good to step away from those roles, even if it’s only for an afternoon. Chances are, your spouse and your friends know a part of you that your children will never see. That part of you might be a little looser, a little rougher around the edges. It’s often probably for the best that they don’t see you that way all the time. But don’t you remember the first time you glanced your parents not just as a figure of authority, but as people? Not just any people, but people who laughs at the same sort of jokes as you, shares the same interests, sit the same way in their seat when they are uncomfortable. It is in these moments that your child is able to see you as someone that is more like them than they had ever been willing to guess.
Start by asking yourself, when do you feel most at peace? What is it that you are doing when you are most in touch with your thoughts? It could be fishing, running, hiking. It could be golf. Maybe you are a fan of sports, and there is nothing more centering than going to the ballpark. Maybe you are a person of faith, and your religion is where you find your center. Whatever this thing is, try and include your child in it.
But what if your son or daughter doesn’t share any interests with you? Well, first of all, that probably isn’t true, but we will get to the finer points of that in a minute. There is a distinct possibility that your son or daughter might not share your most basic interests with you, and that is ok. When I was five or six years old, I used to get up every Sunday morning to read the sports headlines with my father. Discussion centered primarily around the baseball standings, because that was what he was into. At that age, I think I mostly just enjoyed the fact that he enjoyed my interest in his passion. But, by the time I was thirteen, I could hardly name five sports teams at all, and that remains the case to this day. We didn’t stop talking when I lost my interest in major league baseball. We found new things to discuss. For us, it was golf and books. Playing golf together offered many hours of (phone free, I might add) togetherness on an almost weekly basis, while talking about what we were reading on any given day offered a gateway into conversation that we might not have otherwise had. Eventually, if they needed to, these general bonding points could extend into conversations about deeper things. Or, we could just keep it about books and golf. That was always good too.
I’m going to guess that you can find a common ground along those lines. Most people enjoy books, movies, music. Maybe back in the day you were a fan of comic books, and now your kid is into those Robert Downey Junior movies. There is something, even if it is small, and not at first obvious. Remember, this is only to open a dialogue. If talking with your son or daughter is something that you struggle with, having a low stakes ice breaker can be helpful. Just be sure to approach the conversation with sincere interest. This is not small talk, keep in mind. This is an early step on the path to a deeper relationship with your child.
4. Sometimes Honesty is Best
If you find that for whatever reason none of these things are working, it may be time to get upfront about your intentions. Telling your child that you want to start communicating better could be uncomfortable for any number of reasons. Perhaps you aren’t the sort that is easily able to talk openly about feelings, or maybe it is just painful acknowledging out loud that your relationship with your kids could use some work. Whatever your situation, just remember that the future gains will outweigh the momentary discomfort.
Starting this conversation can be as simple and straightforward as saying what you feel. There is no need to prepare a speech, or even decide beforehand what you would like to say. Speak from the heart. Just be sure to pick a time when neither one of you has something else to run off to. It is quite possible that being open and honest could promote a conversation right away. You will want to leave yourself open to that possibility.
If you are someone that prefers to be straightforward, this could very well be your first step. Speaking with your son or daughter should be natural, so do what most fits your personality, and you are sure to find success!
If this all sounds like a lot to take in, I’d like to invite you to take a second to consider the essence of all these tips. The only common imperative in all of them is your own presence, and engagement. If your children see that you are sincerely making an effort to spend time with them, and be involved in their lives, there is a good chance that they will start to meet you halfway. After a while, you might even find that they are putting away their phones without being asked, suggesting before you do a stroll through the park, and coming to you when they have a problem without a solution.
Keep in mind that your child loves you the same way that you love them, and though it may not always seem like it, they want and need a relationship with you. Sometimes, the challenge is getting to a place where both parties feel open enough to acknowledge that. So be open. If you want to see your children, let them see you, and try to keep a smile as you go about it. Even on the days where things are tense, or difficult. Remember, you can’t have the destination without the journey. Bad days pave the way for good ones, and the struggle will only further remind you of how truly and deeply you value the opportunity of bonding with your child.
It is never too late to start connecting, but that doesn’t mean you should wait. Every day wasted away on procrastination is a day you could be spending with your son or daughter, so start taking the steps you need to take now. Remember, no matter how tense or distant things have been in the past, it is your mutual love for one another that will always ultimately win out, so go forward confidently, and with a smile. Your reward will be well worth the effort.
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