Re-valu-ing the Family, Part Twenty: What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Families
by Richard and Linda Eyre
Note: In this twenty-six part column, Richard and Linda Eyre explore the recent revolution of the family from the honored centerpiece of society to a disrespected and seemingly redundant appendage to the larger corporate and cultural institutions of our new world. Re-valu-ing the family, the Eyres believe, is the only alternative to America’s demise. The sequence of the column is: A. Re-valu-ing the family (part I); B. The “crux” (parts 2 and 3 — why family is the foundation for everything, including happiness); C. The “curse” (parts 4 and 5 — the social problems that plague our society today); D. The “crisis” (parts 6 and 7 — the breakdown and breakup of families that allows and leads to the social problems); E. The “cause” (parts 8, 9, 10, 11 — the reasons our families are failing); F. The “culprits” (parts 12, 13, 14, and 15– how our new, large institutions are destroying the small, most basic institution of family); G. The “cure” (parts 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 — what you as a parent can do about it); H. The “case” (parts 23, 24, and 25 — a case for government and big corporations to pay more positive attention), and I. Finding or forming a family support group (part 26).
This week, in part 20, we discuss phase four and five of the “cure” — being careful of larger institutions and insisting on open communication within the family.
Phase 4 of the “cure”: Practice (and teach kids) the SELECTIVE USE of larger institutions
It may sound like a stretched or oversimplified analogy, but we need to think of (and teach our kids to perceive of) big institutions as similar to fire. Fire can warm, support, and sustain us, or it can consume and destroy us. Media and merchandising, business and banks, Internet and information are the same — they can serve us or consume us. It’s a lesson our parents and grand parents didn’t need to teach us. It’s a lesson we do need to teach our children and grand children.
They need to learn to perceive the world like our earlier target diagram . . . the family as the essence and the core . . . drawing on the outer sectors for support but never giving up their identity to them, never letting them replace or supplant family loyalty, never letting them take advantage of or swallow up the family.
Kids need to be able to identify the larger institutions and know what each does to help us and what each does to hurt us.
Essentially, the goal is to help our kids become good critics who can see through advertising and promotion, who recognize instant gratification for what it is, who connect action to consequences whether others do or not, and most of all who perceive the dangers stemming from the preservation and expansion of instincts (and the greed) of larger institutions. Our own experience convinces that kids can, gradually over time, become good critics who see things as they really are.
We’d been trying for months to help our kids see the world in this way and to be self-motivated critics of the materialism and amorality that lurks everywhere today. We had little signs that we were getting somewhere when a child would say, “Yeah, sure.” while watching a commercial on T.V. or would ask their friends if they knew how much a car really cost when you bought it on credit. We knew one of our boys had really mastered at least a part of it when he told us he’d found an Internet server he thought we should shift to because “it screens out all the garbage.” But we really felt we were making progress when we were driving our seventh-grade daughter home from a parent-teacher conference and she suddenly said, “You know, I’ve just got to go in and talk to my math teacher and tell him why I didn’t think that test was fair. After all, he works for us!” We asked her what she meant and she really told us. “Well, we pay him, don’t we? I mean, it’s our taxes — he works for us. We own the schools. They don’t own us. It’s like you’ve been telling me — schools and stores and companies and stuff, even movies and music and the Internet, they shouldn’t be telling us what to do. We should be telling them what to do!”
Well, we had to have a little discussion about the right and wrong ways to “tell them what to do,” but we were delighted with her growing ability to think things through for herself and her capacity to be a critic rather than an acceptor of everything.
The bottom line (and one that kids can understand and feel empowered by): Live by your own values. Sift and screen the things media and schools and advertisements throw at you. Learn to recognize when a big institution’s self-interests don’t match up with your values, your beliefs, your sense of what’s best for you and for your family.
Phase 5 of the “cure”: Insist on COMMUNICATION
So many marriages and so many parent-child relationships “suffer in silence.” Feelings go unexpressed. Resentments or misunderstandings grow because they are unresolved. Pride makes people walk away rather than come together or compromise or apologize. Kids rebel and leave home or “go silent” because they’re convinced that parents don’t (and can’t) understand. When parents try to show interest or ask questions, it comes across as interrogation. Couples find themselves doing more judging and demanding than real sharing and supporting and communicating. We resort to small talk on safe subjects and avoid the real issues, the real needs, the real worries.
More and more kids find communication with computers easier and less threatening than communication with people, and they learn more from movies and T.V. than from parents because they spend vastly more time and hear many times more words from the screen than they do from their parents’ mouths.
The simple fact is that we give up too easily on communication. We expect too little from it. When it gets hard we back off and do something easier and more pleasant. When a kid (or a spouse) says, “I can’t talk to you,” we either get mad (“I can’t talk to you either”) or sad (“I guess I’ll just go away”) rather than getting determined and saying, at least to ourselves, “We’ve got to find a way!”
Everything depends on communication. It’s what solves problems; it’s what draws people together; it’s how love grows; it’s what builds trust and security and identity.
One problem, of course, is that communication takes time. And in this busy world of over commitment and trying to do everything, it is time for relationships that is so often lost. We trade relationships for achievements. We trade communication for busyness. We trade time spent talking for time spent running around and trying to keep up with all those we view as competitors. These are always bad tradeoffs, but we get in the habit of them.
The old stalwarts (and symbols) of communication — family dinners, long walks, bedtime stories, Sunday drives — just don’t happen much anymore, replaced in families by T.V. and ball games and electronics and more meetings and lessons than our parents could have imagined.
But it’s not just the places and traditions of communication that are gone, it’s the desire, it’s the effort.
How do we restore it all . . . the desire, the effort, and the traditions? We start with the realization that everything that matters most — our happiness, our values, and our families — depends on communication. Then, having lifted communication to the status of highest priority, we devote ourselves to us. We put nothing ahead of it, we insist on it, we demand it of ourselves and ask and work and plead for it from those we love.
In terms of specific approaches, here are some starters.
A. Communication and Traditions in the Family. Have some regular, repetitive things that you do “in family” that stimulate communications. Develop (tailor make) your own. Examples of some that have worked in other families:
(1) Bedtime “happy’s or sad’s.” As you tuck a child in bed ask, “What was your “happy” today? Your “sad?” Over the course of many evenings, you’ll learn a lot about friends, social situations, school, fears, etc.
(2) Active listening. In these and other queries, listen “actively” by paraphrasing what your child says in a way that shows interest and non-judgment. “So you felt bad when Lisa sat with someone else at lunch.” When you listen without directing, kids will jump from subject to subject — often from effect to cause — and will tell you things you’d never think to ask! Practice the same technique with your spouse.
(3) Goals and “consulting.” Even fairly small children can set goals for the
week. On Sunday ask a child to set three goals for the week ahead: one for school (a high test score, a paper, etc.); one for personal development (sports, music, scouting, etc.); and one for family (cleaning room, fixing something, etc.). You do the same but substitute work for school. Then explain your goals to each other. It will lead to a lot of communication about a lot of subjects.
(4) Sunday dinners. While the old family dinner concept may have pretty well lost out to fast food and over committed schedules, once a week is still realistic. Pick a day and reserve dinner. Use the time to talk about schedules for the week and the ask each other questions about feelings, dreams, priorities, and concerns. (This may become the weekly family meeting discussed earlier.)
As a young father I had an experience that combined the “goal
setting” and “active listening” methods of communication.
I read about “active listening or Rogerian technique” (named after famous therapist Karl Rogers) and will never forget the first time I consciously tried it. Seven-year-old Saydi, rather caught up with her friends and not always easy to talk to, had written for her weekly school goal, “Get a new friend.” The normal parental response would have been either a challenge, “Why, don’t you have enough friends?” or a lecture, “You know to have friends you have to be a friend.” But I was trying the Rogerian technique so I simply said, “I see, you want to find a new friend this week at school. . .” “Yes,” said Saydi — “because my best friend Katie was so rude to me.”
Again I avoided the typical parental response, “What did she do?”
“Do I need to call her mom?” I just said, “Oh, I see. The reason your goal is a new friend is that Katie hasn’t been so nice to you.” Magically, Saydi went right on, telling me everything, really communication. “Yes. See, she was the chooser in soccer and she didn’t even pick me for her team.” I just kept paraphrasing back what she said and tem minutes later I knew more about her second grade life and about her feelings than I could have learned through hours of interrogation type questioning.
(5) Car time. All that time we spend driving kids to school, to lessons, etc. — time we usually resent — can be “captive” communication time. Ask “interest questions” (“I’m interested in that new math teacher. How is she?”) rather than “interrogation questions.” (“How’s your grade in math?”)
(6) “Dates.” Married couples who still have a date on a set night weekly or biweekly tend to keep a courtship mentality that prompts better communication. A variation on the theme works for kids — a “daddy date” or “mommy date” where the child decides what to do and where to go.
(7) “1 to 10.” When kids have a hard time talking about their feelings — or where you’re getting just “yes” or “no” or “fine” answers to your questions, try the “ranking” technique. Say, “I’m going to mention five separate things to you and you rank how worried you are about them from 1 to 10.” This can work on everything from how much they enjoyed a date to how important they perceive various things to be. Once they’ve ranked something, it gets easier to talk and ask further “active listening” questions about it.
B. Breaking patterns of non-communication. When you’re not talking — when the trust level and communication level has dipped pretty much to the nonexistent level with a child — some more drastic “jump start” techniques are in order.
(1) A long trip. Take a child one-on-one on a long trip (preferably a long car trip) — a business trip (it may be expensive and inconvenient, but it can pay huge dividends) — or a long weekend trip or camp out or something you conjure up. Just being alone together while traveling allows communication to develop. Don’t push too hard — don’t interrogate. Use the technique of active listening, “ranking,” and “interest questions.” Be willing to talk about things you’re not particularly interested in. Let it develop. Express your joy in being together. Express your confidence and love and tell the child he is your priority and you are committed to him unconditionally. Be satisfied with small progress. Don’t expect one trip to solve everything.
(2) Letters or e-mail. Some kids communicate better in writing. Even if they live in the same house with you. E-mail them, write them notes. Let your written communication open up opportunities for verbal communication.
(3) Surrogates. Sometimes kids will talk better and say more to anyone else but you. If there’s an uncle or a friend or anyone you trust who can spend some time one-on-one with a noncommunicative child and get him talking, it can furnish you with needed information and can open up future possibilities for your own communication.
(4) Persist! Whichever of these ideas (or others) you try, tell your child that communication with him/her means everything to you and that you’ll work on it forever. Keep trying, look for opportunities, make time together. Do whatever it takes to open up the channels.
The reason I list each of these individual ideas is that I’ve had to call on them to save communication with my own kids. How well I remember my e-mails and notes with Josh, my long drives with Noah, phone calls with Saydi. Notes back and forth with Charity. Goal discussions with Talmadge. Different things work at different times with different kids . . . and something will work sometime with every child. Never quit. Make it happen!
Next article, we’ll explore part 6 of the “cure” . . . The challenge of creating identity, security, and motivation for our children.
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