I remember thinking when my oldest was very little that I would never end up cringing at the hard conversations. I was determined to be the mom who was upfront and gave blunt, but concise, answers to her kids about the tough stuff.
Of course, then my kids grew up.
The hard questions often came at unexpected times, like say, the time I was casually asked which hole babies come out of at 6 in the morning while a spoonful of Cap’n Crunch cereal dangled in front of my mouth. I don’t care who you are or what your parenting philosophy is: you are not ready for that conversation!
I had a two and four-year-old staring me down and demanding answers–the sun wasn’t even fully up yet! I was exhausted, and so I told them “the belly button” because you know what? There is a solid chance they won’t remember when they are that young so I took a gamble that I wasn’t ruining them for life.
It’s just as awkward for them
I don’t remember specifics from my middle and high school years, but I do remember the general feeling of it being awkward. It sometimes felt like there was a race for information; which kid would tell us about the taboo topics first? (Everyone knows it will be the kid with older brothers or sisters who are just itching to corrupt their younger sibling, and that kid will always be the go-to on the school bus, but will almost always give out very wrong information.)
I knew that my parents would be totally okay about me asking them questions, but they each had very different ways of handling it. My dad was always upfront and blunt–if you had a question, everyone in the house would then know your question and it would become a family learning experience and sometimes you’d want to die at the dinner table.
My mom was very much the opposite. She subscribed to the handle it fast and be done method. For example, when I got my period, I was only twelve. I remember knowing what it was and had a general idea of what to do, but I also had no idea what to do at the same time, you know? I remember whispering to my mom in the kitchen that I had a situation and she just handed me supplies and told me there were directions on the package. Boom: problem solved.
When I became a mother, I wanted to really be the mix of both my parents. By nature, I am an open person; there isn’t much that embarrasses me and I will happily tell you just about anything you ask. With my kids… I’m finding I have to go about it differently because sometimes I can tell they have built up anxiety by the time they came to me and it’s almost always something pretty minor and not worth stressing about. Of course, to them it is a big deal and I don’t care who you are, it is really strange to ask your parents questions about reproductive health, but also sometimes friendship drama or anything you might get mad at.
Toot, toot, get in the car
One of the best parenting tips I have is something I stumbled on by accident. My oldest was in first or second grade and it was the first year she was in a class with none of her friends from the previous year. Sometimes at recess they could play together, but a few months into the school year I noticed she was eating less. Then I noticed she was looking at herself in the mirror and sucking her in stomach. It feels pertinent to mention that my oldest has always been very slender, so while she was seemingly trying to lose weight, I felt like maybe she should have been gaining weight. She refused to talk to me about it when we would chat at bedtime, and I didn’t feel like I could push it.
One day it was just her and I in the van on our way to the mall. She was in the backseat and very casually said one of the girls she used to play with told her she was fat and that maybe she should throw up her lunch. It was a pretty awful and alarming thing to hear as a mother but I was able to ask questions, just… casually, as she was talking, and I got so much information out of her. She never wanted to talk about it again outside of the car.
Now that my oldest two are high school and middle school age, the driving trick has become a life saver. We’ve developed an unsaid rule that whatever is said in the car, stays in the car. Tough talks work well in the car because you don’t have to look at each other. You can look out the window, the driver is fairly distracted, and the chances of you getting angry are pretty low since you have to concentrate on the road.
You know when you’re in a conversation and you don’t know what to say next or how to frame your words? It can get weird because the uncomfortable silence sets in and threatens to shut the whole talk down. But you don’t have that in the car. Somehow the silence while you think feels normal and a million times easier for someone who has anxiety.
I find that getting kids to open up in the car is half the battle, but the rest comes with how you react. We all speak with a different tone depending on the topic, and obviously the wrong one could be intimidating to a child who is already worried about asking a question or telling you about something.
I have also learned that, most of the time, they don’t want your help. They know what they need to do or what should happen next, but voicing it and getting confirmation from you is what they’re really after.
If you child tells you about a friend, or maybe a group of kids who are being cruel to someone else, instead of jumping in with advice, you could respond, “Oh wow, really? Why are they doing that? What do you think about it?” Talk to them like you would one of your friends. You can always ask them if they want to know what you think and sometimes they’ll say no, but sometimes they’ll say yes. Giving them that choice is a big deal and builds trust. You’re saying you have faith that they already know so you don’t have to lecture them.
Hanging out the side of your best friend’s ride
One of the things I look forward to is dance season. At first, the long car drive to the dance studio was a buzzkill, but it turned out to be really great for communication. My oldest knows it is a designated time twice a week that she has my attention with no siblings around. Sometimes she’ll give me a heads up she needs to talk and other times it just happens.
It’s incredibly easy to start this type of open communication when your children are younger, as well. My five and four-year-olds are already doing it with me (but their problems are mostly about who hogged the monkey bars or who farted too much at lunch). I ask every day on the drive home what was the best thing they did all day, and what was the worst, and if the day was a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I talk to them like they are “big kids” and like everything they are saying is the coolest, or most serious, thing ever.
YES, it can be exhausting when you’re over it for the day, but I promise you, it’s worth it. I am certainly not a parenting expert; I am winging it every day. I feel like I’m picking up things as I learn them with my older kids, and hopefully going through it with my younger kids won’t be as stressful. We’re building a foundation of trust with each other, and my hope is that my kids will always feel safe coming to me to talk about the tough stuff.