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The key to good relationships – dialogue

Mum, Dad, teen son, teen daughter, laughing on couch

Every family needs to have rules. Kids need to have rules, even if it’s only so they know which ones they are breaking, but it is relationships that are the glue that hold the family together. And the key to good relationships? It is not solving all your kids’ problems, giving them money, or being the coolest parent on the block. The key to good relationships is dialogue.

This is good news and bad news. It is good news because dialogue is cheap and easy. It is bad news because dialogue is the one thing that has suffered most in modern homes and families.

Stephen Glenn, an American family educator, wrote:

 “We have moved from living rooms filled with dialogue to family rooms filled with television sets. Interaction within families has been reduced to only a few minutes a day. And of these few minutes, over half are issued in one way negatively toned communication. Parents are issuing warnings or reproaching children for things done wrong.” And note this book was first published 30 years ago – before the invention of smartphones, tablets, social media, and streaming video, which all make it so easy for every member of a family to live an individualised experience in the group space.

Additionally, our lives have become so busy and insular that there’s no time left to have dialogue. We parents are so busy doing our work thing, our social thing, our parenting thing while our kids are equally busy doing their school, sport, and friend things; and the computer, smartphone, tablet or TV is doing its thing to isolate all of us. The result is that some Australian families are so busy that people only get to spend time with each other outside the microwave. One is waiting to take a dinner out; the other is waiting to put one in.

The consequence of all this busyness and distraction is the loss of incidental time – people happening to be in the same space at the same time with nothing much else to do. That is the context in which dialogue will most naturally arise, and because that context is being eroded, we need to re-create it strategically.

For all of my 2 children’s teen years, my work required that I travel a great deal, in 2 to 14-day trips, usually totalling between 4 and 6 months each year. Consequently, when I was home, I had to think very seriously about the time I spent with my wife and kids because if I didn’t choose to spend time with them, that relationship-building time wouldn’t happen. It also meant that when I was on the road, I got to do what I like to do, which is to watch television, and being the man I am, what I watched was news and current affairs.

When I was home, I watched hardly any news, not because I am some instinctively brilliant father, but because my wife gently suggested to me (as only wives can “gently suggest”) that perhaps it was inappropriate for me to be sitting watching TV at the only time of the day family was together at the same time. From that conversation, I learned it was far more wonderful to find out what had happened on my daughter’s day than on the Australian Prime Minister’s or American President’s day. That it was much more fun to go to the nets and practice cricket with my son than it was to find out how the Australian Team was performing.

The other thing I noticed was about sports and exercise. While on the road, it was just too inconvenient (a very convenient excuse!) When I was home, if I were to have a 4-hour round of golf or an hour in the gym, that would be time not spent with my wife and kids, so for all of my children’s teenage years, my sport became going to their sports events. The spectator dad bounced from swimming to cricket to netball and back to swimming again, midday to 5 on Fridays, all day Saturday and much of many Sundays. At the end of those events, other parents would arrive for the child collection and give me looks that seemed to say, “He’s here again; doesn’t he have a job? Doesn’t he have anything better to do?” And the reality was that the answer to their question was that I didn’t have anything better to do because as much as I enjoyed watching my children’s sport, what I was actually there for was to build a regular context of the ordinary in which exceptional dialogue could take place – more on that later.

Some simple things can be done daily to build this context, but they have one thing in common: to put yourself into your child’s world rather than forcing the child into your own. In the early evening, when all you want to do is sit and unwind in front of a screen, choose a screen or show the teen wants to watch it with him or her. Choose YouTube Fails over the news! Do this for three days, and they’ll notice that you’re there. Do it for a week; it won’t be hard because you will be addicted. After a couple of weeks, you’ll find your kids start to talk to you, during the ads, but they’ll talk to you.

As the mother, and this is stereotypically still true, you are the only person in the home still working after six at night. You find yourself stuck in the kitchen saying to yourself, “How come I’m the one packing dishes, making lunches, getting ready for tomorrow?” When you feel like that, put down everything, take up your cup of tea, a glass of wine, or a sensitive, new-age mug of healing hot water, go to your daughter’s bedroom where she’s pretending to study, and lie down on her bed. When she looks at you and says, “Mum, what are you doing here?” you reply, “Nothing, sweetheart, I just wanted to be close to you.”

The first time you do this, it will be like the Antarctic has moved into your house. The second time, the thaw will have begun, and by the third time, you’ll find you start to relax, to fall asleep. The moment you get that relaxed, your daughter (or son) will say, “Mum, what do you think about …”, “Mum did you know”, and suddenly, from this child from whom you’ve recently only had grunts, you’ll now receive sentences.

Another way of looking at this is that dialogue, especially with teens, is something that only ever happens by accident when people are comfortable with each other. You can’t program dialogue, you can’t sit down with a teenager and say, “I’ve got time; let’s talk”. It won’t happen.

If you want to have significant conversations with your teens, you need to spend lots of time on the insignificant. If you’re too busy to talk about the ordinary, you’ll never hear about the extraordinary. If you want to deal with the serious, you must first spend time with the trivial.

This becomes particularly important when we understand that most kids are reticent to speak about serious issues. Almost invariably, teens who have something important they want to discuss with their parents will first test to see if their parents are listening, and the way kids test their parents’ listening skills is to try them out on the trivial. If a teen’s experience is that their parents are too busy with the trivial, that teen won’t even trying to raise the important.

You need to spend time on these ordinary conversations, to put yourself in a position where dialogue is easy for your kids. All those hours you spend listening to your child’s latest obsession (friends, sports, electronic games, clothes, pop stars, TikTokers, and the like – the list is as endless as it is mindless) work to convince your child that your ears are open to them.

Conversely, suppose your child’s lived experience is having to fight your other priorities in order to be heard. In that case, your child will gradually slip into the belief that her or his thoughts and issues are not important and will stop raising them.

Your children are more important than the drink with the girls or boys after work, the correspondence course you are doing, the social media you scroll through on the couch, the news and current affair shows on TV, the sport, and chatting on the phone to friends. If this seems to suggest that parents must make sacrifices you are reading me correctly, for two reasons.

Firstly, if you already have teenagers, you haven’t got them much longer; this is the last hurrah. At best, you have five years left to set this stuff up.

Secondly, in this story, you are the grownups; if you don’t make the sacrifices, no one will.

This doesn’t mean you have to make your life totally available to your children; that can be equally damaging. It simply means that where parents make a serious effort to lay the groundwork for open and good communication, the usual outcome is a dialogue that promotes the most desirable relationships.  

Enjoying these posts? Then get the “prequel” –Understanding Your Teenager,  an eBook that reveals what changes are happening in your child – physical, social, emotional, intellectual – and equips you with knowledge and ideas to deal with them. Only $7! Click for more information

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