Recently, I found myself in a group discussion about parenting. The question asked was, “What’s the most important thing you can give to your children?”
As we went around the room, many expressed the typical answers such as a good education, financial stability, work ethic, etc. All great things. But as my turn to speak drew closer, I found myself scrambling for an answer I truly believed in. Before I knew it, the spotlight was on me and I blurted out, “The ability to be comfortable expressing all of their emotions.” I felt the collective eyebrow of the group raise in curiosity. I followed up. “I mean, I want them to be comfortable talking to me about everything.”
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about why that was my answer. Perhaps it’s because open communication, especially around things as sensitive as emotions and feelings, was not something that existed in my upbringing. Perhaps it’s because I feel that communication between myself and my children is the foundation to our relationship and my ammunition to fortify them against all of life’s unfortunate realities.
There’s a classic saying that goes something like this. “If you don’t teach them, someone else will.” While I believe that to be true, that’s not the motivation behind my desire for open, honest conversation between myself and my children. Yes, the onus is on me as a parent to teach them. But I will always only be one of many sources for the knowledge. The motivation for me, is so they can teach me. So they can let me in. So I can be trusted. So we bond beyond a typical father/child relationship. Something I feel can only be accomplished through communication.
I want nothing more than for my children to know that I love and support them unconditionally. And that real, meaningful communication is the key to that.
Now, I clearly have no academic background in psychology or whatever. My methods are solely based on my experimentation as a parent. But here are three things I do that I feel have helped in creating an open pathway between myself and my kids.
Our culture only wants to talk about the good stuff. Proud honor student bumper stickers. Facebook posts about perfect achievements. But the reality is, the failures are what really define us. And how we respond to them. Only talking about the good stuff creates the belief in a child’s mind that the good stuff is all that matters. Skeletons are meant to stay hidden in a closet.
A few years ago, I started asking my children every night about their highest point of the day and their lowest. But the more time we spend unpacking the lowest, the more I believe I’m helping them understand the value that comes from being okay with their deficiencies. Plus, as a parent, I haven’t heard a low yet that I couldn’t relate to, so it gives me a great opportunity to tell them about how I experienced similar things in my life.
I started asking my kids a series of questions. Stuff like, “Right now, what has you feeling anxious?” or “What’s making you feel happy?” “What’s making you feel sad?” It’s been very eye-opening to hear their answers. The exercise of connecting a specific emotion with something occurring in their life has created the freedom to be comfortable with these feelings and emotions. It’s also helped me get past the generic “how was your day?” layer. Plus, I’ve also found it valuable for me to answer the same questions.
The most powerful act any human can do, especially in times of distress, is listen. When my children make mistakes, I have learned that asking questions and listening to be a much better approach than sitting them down and letting them have it. Again, I want to teach them from their mistakes. Sometimes I need to punish them for their actions. But by listening, I allow them to participate in the teaching as well as the understanding.
Like most fathers, I’m just doing the best that I can with what I’ve been given. I constantly worry whether or not I’m doing it right. Am I setting them up for success? Am I pushing them enough? Am I teaching them enough? Which, I guess, is why I blurted out that answer in that group. Because the only way I will get answers to any of these plaguing questions is if I listen. And that requires us being able to talk about everything.
Steve Babcock is the proud father of three and Chief Creative Officer of VaynerMedia. Born and raised in Idaho, Steve has toured the country in a rock band, worked in creative marketing for over 20 years and made it to Forbes’ ‘30 Most Creative People In Social Media’. He loves hanging out with his kids, cycling, hiking and snowboarding.