One of the most helpful things I’ve seen – and I don’t know to whom I should attribute this – is that when someone is working through something and comes to me, they may not want the advice I have to give.
They might just need my presence. They might simply need my listening ear.
Likewise, when our children or teens come to us with a situation or problem that is giving them angst, instead of launching into a lecture or diatribe, maybe it’s best to respond with supportive silence or the following question.
“Do you need me to give you advice? Or do you just need me to listen?”
As many of our newly minted adult children are taking their first steps out of the family home this month, I think this is an important thing to remember. Tensions are running high with back-to-school shopping and to-do lists. In the near future, these fresh and very green adults will be experiencing new problems and conflicts that they will have to navigate without us.
Last year, when I was taking my firstborn to college, I received advice from my friend, Gay, whose words have made my blog before. This week I talked with another friend who is taking her firstborn to college next week. She said nerves are frayed at her house. Remembering that phase, I thought I might share the advice of wise friend number one here. On the college dropoff:
“Nerves will stay high. If you possibly can, just do whatever she wants the whole trip and through all the other unpacking and settling. Take her to Wal-Mart or Target and say yes to whatever. Agree with all her ideas. This is not the time to know more or give any unsolicited thoughts. Vent to me all you want but smile and agree with her.”
My children will say that I’m not good at not giving advice. Indeed, just this week, I was passionately giving one of my kids a lesson I thought they needed to learn. Something about showing back up to a place where you’ve made a mistake before, and saying how important it was to do this, and do that, and portray this, and recognize that.
One of my teens looked at the other two and said, “Dude this bro keeps squawking.” “Bro” was me. “Squawking” was the advice I was giving.
“I may be squawking but I’m 49 years old and have all the life lessons you need!” I said, or something like that, as I stomped down the hallway and texted two other friends that I’m quitting parenting because no one appreciates the magnanimous and wise advice I have to give. Let’s just see how far they get without my advice, I thought, as I settled in with my pajamas and novel.
I have been advising my kids for a good 19 years now, trying to teach them about all the dangers out there. Hidden driveways when they were learning to ride bikes. Naegleria fowleri, the brain-eating amoeba that could infect them if they swam in the wrong pond. Sex traffickers and creepers online. Random adults alone at a children’s park. Don’t ever take pills someone gives you. Never put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want blown up on a courtroom wall. And on and on.
I have been advising them about relationships, hoping they will be kind to people and respectful. Never comment about other people’s bodies. Don’t ever make fun of someone who is different. Would you say what you just said to her face? Friendships shift in middle and high school. And you never know what someone might be dealing with at home that could be affecting his behavior.
All of these things I have crammed down my kids’ throats for all of these years, hoping my words settle in like the great wisdom I know them to be. But increasingly, as they get older, I think my words just sound like squawking.
My friend Gay’s advice, then, is deeper than it sounds. As our kids reach adolescence, it’s time to quit squawking, though that is harder for some of us than others. It is time to trust the foundation we’ve given them, back up a little bit, and listen more than we talk.
They will make many small decisions in the coming years. They will wear outfits I want to criticize or decorate their room with colors I despise. Giving my unwanted opinion now — as they are developing their own style and sense of self — will only make me sound critical and drive a wedge in our relationship.
It’s also time for them to make some of the biggest decisions of their lives thus far. And it’s time for me to give up control. The intersection of these two life stages — them spreading their wings and my trying to let them — leads to interpersonal conflict between parents and kids in the teenage years. No matter what.
It is hard to give up control. But remember it is just as hard for them to take those first steps into adulthood.
You have to pick your battles with your children, especially toddlers and adolescents. When they’re toddlers, the day still ends with a bedtime story and snuggle if they don’t get to wear the dinosaur shirt for the fifth day in a row. But when they’re adolescents, the ice on which we skate is not so thick.
A beautiful way to let them feel supported and in control of their lives is to not sweat the small stuff, keep your mouth closed and your ears open. I have come to see that this is the way to keep relationships and open communication with my kids. And when I stay silent and supportive, I get to see my kids talk long enough to solve their own problems.
And I really am trying. I’m trying to actively listen to them and let them learn life’s lessons without my sermons. When it really matters, I will try to ask the question above: do you need my presence or my advice? I know I’ll still squawk, but hopefully it’ll be toned down a notch or two.