Children Can Teach Grown-Ups A Few Things Too

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Children can teach grown-ups a lot of things about themselves. After all, they are the real experts on themselves. I would like to think that this is exactly what the 19th century poet William Wordsworth meant when he said, "The child is the father of man." Children can be teachers of adults for certain matters. For example, only they can accurately convey to parents how they feel and think about matters pertaining to them.

To understand their adolescent children, parents often draw upon memories of their own past. They apply knowledge from those memories to the child's situation at hand. It is a good exercise. It is only through ourselves that we can know the other person. But we should not entirely depend on our experiences as a child or what we remember of them. It is true that the road to understanding another person always passes through one's own mind and heart, but it must start and end in the other person. Therefore, to understand what their child is really feeling and thinking, parents should be mentally and physically available, they should patiently ask open-ended questions, if needed, and, above all, they should closely listen when the child is trying to communicate.

Unfortunately, the time parents and children spend together has been consistently decreasing during the past century. Nowadays, parents, on average, converse about six minutes a day with their children. Many parents view this statistic with disbelief because they think they and their children talk and spend a lot of time together. But the fact is that television, computer, newspaper, phone, E-mail, and other activities occupy most of the waking hours people spend at home.

Take for example, a parent watching TV while the child works at the computer. Although both are in the family room at the same time, they are not really spending time together or communicating with each other. For a parent to be available to the child, his or her attention should be focused on the child. A parent who is trying to pay attention to the child, while his or her mind is still reverberating with what transpired elsewhere during the day, is not 100% available to the child. This would affect the quality of sharing and the exchange of thoughts and feelings between the parent and the child.

Sometimes parents ask questions but they are not ready to hear the answer; especially, if the answer is not what the parent wants to hear. For example, the parent asks the child how she or he felt about an upsetting event that happened that morning. The child honestly says that he or she felt absolutely furious and was heart broken by it. The parent should ask a few open-ended questions to learn about what was maddening or heart breaking about the event. Instead of doing that, the parent starts consoling the child or start "shouldding" him or her, "You should not feel this way!"

Some teens complain that their parents are not really interested in their answers or opinions. They feel that parents ask them questions, not for the purpose of exploring their actual thoughts and feelings, but to advise or criticize them. When a child reaches that conclusion, he or she tends to shut up in the future.

Parents, if you ask a question, be prepared to hear the complete answer, no matter how disturbing the answer might be. Don't criticize. Offer advice only after your child has said all that he or she wanted to say about it, and after you have asked pertinent questions about the matter. Do not appear to be shocked by it. Even if your guts are wrenching from the inside, do not react. Remember the movie, "A Few Good Men" when Jack Nicholson says, "You can't handle the truth." Some children don't express their true feelings or they withhold information because they think their parents can't handle it.

Here are some examples of how teenagers express frustration with their parents: "Young people are not stupid. We understand far more than you think we do"; "You never listen when I try to tell you something;" "I have an opinion too, why don't you ever ask me?"

Here are some examples of what parents have to say: "These teenagers think they know everything, they don't ever want to hear what I have to say," "My child just wouldn't talk to me. If I ask her what is going on, she gets irritated. I have quit asking her anything," or, "It is like we have a lodger in the house. He comes in, opens the fridge and goes straight to his room." These statements reflect a breakdown in communication.

Excluding such situations as childhood depression or significant substance abuse, a breakdown in parent-child communication takes a long time to occur. Often a breakdown in communication occurs due to breakdown of the relationship between the child and the parent. When children begin to enjoy the time spent with their parents and parental company makes them feel good about themselves, they start communicating spontaneously.

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