Parents, we talk a lot to our kids.
Do we talk too much? Do we talk in the right way? About the right things? Are they even listening to us?
Los Angeles psychologist Wendy Mogel answers those questions in her new book, “Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen” ($27, Simon & Schuster).
Her answer to the first three questions is “no.” The last one is a definite “yes.”
Mogel is best known for her books “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” and “The Blessing of a B Minus,” books that talked about letting your kid fail and embracing those failures as fantastic life lessons.
This new book came out of coaching parents for the past decade and asking them to re-enact their moments of frustration with their children.
“These are adults who, in their lives, are articulate, calm and authoritative,” she says. “They are really good at communicating. When they talk to their kids, their voices would rise in pitch, their tone would become indignant. Their shoulders would hunch up to their ears, and they would start pointing and shaking their fingers. I watched them losing their authority.”
To Mogel, it sounded more like the way siblings talk to one another, not how parents should be talking to their children. They are giving their kids power, and it’s not a good power; it’s a scary power for their children, she says.
Today’s parents, when they are not losing their cool and yelling at their kids, are also trying to use logic and reasoning rather than just telling their kids what the boundaries are.
Parents are not going to win an argument based on logic, she says, in part because kids have changed. “Our children are more verbally sophisticated and articulate than any generation of kids have ever been,” she says.
Girls are powerful little attorneys starting at age 4, and boys by about a year and a half later, she says.
“Parents are acting like a bad public relations firm,” she says. “They are trying to sell her on ideas, as if a child would say, ‘Gee, Mom, I hadn’t seen it this way. Thank you so much for the important context and telling me about the potential damaging consequences.’”
When Mogel coaches parents, she tells them to say a lot less. Keep the first sentence, which tells the kid what went wrong or restates what the child is asking for, and keep the last sentence, which tells the child what the consequence is for their action or your answer to their question. “Let’s cut out the whole middle part,” she says.
When we talk too much to our kids, our kids become “parent deaf,” as she calls it. They stop listening. They stop accepting the answer. They keep asking until you change your mind, or they start insulting you until you bend, she says.
The way kids communicate and need to receive communication changes over time and is also different by gender. That doesn’t mean that every girl or every boy is the same. Mogel knows she’s generalizing, but there are some differences in gender that she’s found as she’s studied this.
For example, teenage boys stop talking to parents. Teenage girls won’t stop talking.
And parents react. They fear that there is something very wrong with their sons who aren’t talking or filling out basic paperwork to go to college. They think they need to fix every problem their daughter mentions or worry that this up-and-down roller coaster of emotions will be the norm into adulthood.
Parents are both afraid of their teens and afraid for them, Mogel says. “Parents take a snapshot and mistake it for the epic movie of their life,” she says.
It’s as if parents believe their children are set in amber and don’t change. But kids are always changing. Take the feminist who is raising a daughter who loves pink and purple. Wait a few years and she’ll have a daughter who only wears olive green and black and has shaved the side of her head, Mogel says.
“It’s all a phase,” Mogel says. “The good stuff is a phase; the bad stuff is a phase.”
Yet, parents fret, and they share that worry with their children. Instead, Mogel would love parents to have a hobby — something for themselves. And she would love for parents to start their children on chores from the time they are little.
“They can’t pay rent or the mortgage, and they can’t drive, but there are a lot of things they can do that you are doing for them,” Mogel says. “It makes you tired, it makes you resentful, and you won’t have patience.”
You also won’t have the good conversations you’re craving.
Children exude this feeling of disdain toward their parents, but what Mogel knows, based on interviewing many middle- and high-schoolers, is that children really love their parents, and they appreciate them, too.
They talk to her about the sweet things their parents do, but they’ll never acknowledge those things to their parents. A big part of this is what the mission of puberty is (aside from all that biological stuff). It’s to separate from parents, to become individuals, to become adults. And that’s where the tension is. “They are not going to go from Little Buddy to Junior Statesman and skip adolescence,” Mogel says.
Instead of worrying what your kids say to you and how they act around you, Mogel would rather parents focus on how kids act around other people. Are they respectful to their teachers, kind to their friends, good with younger kids; are they courteous to servers at restaurants? If so, your kids are good human beings.
Parents get the brunt of kids’ attitude because our kids are exhausted by their schedule of school, extracurriculars and social events, she says. All day long they are having to switch from interpreting the code of their teachers, their peers and their friends and navigate that code. Then they get home to you and “they don’t have much emotional fuel left,” Mogel says. They don’t want to talk. “And then we ask them about their day,” she says.
Can you imagine, Mogel says, if someone asked us about our day and expected us to go through a play-by-play of what we did all day? “The girls will be irritated and will give you the scary news report, and the boys won’t say anything,” she says.
Even younger kids recognize that you, the parent, are just trolling for things to worry about. Parents constantly are comparing their children to what they think every other kid in that school has experienced that day.
Just like kids, parents play into the false sense of what’s normal through the lens of what fellow parents are posting on social media or presenting in public. Really, no one is telling you that their child likes to eat glue or skipped out of school or is failing math.
Kids will talk to their parents in meaningful ways, but they will do it when their parents are least expecting it. It happens when you are going through the drive-thru because they have an appreciation for you procuring something they want, and they do it when you’re loading the dishwasher because they know that all your concentration isn’t on them, she says. Parents become less threatening at those times.
Mogel tells parents to ask themselves to WAIT: Why Am I Talking? If it’s just to fill the conversation void, stop.
Also, parents should: Show up, Suit Up and Shut up. Be present, be ready and see the paragraph above.
With boys, you can get them to talk. You just have to show interest in the things they are interested in and stop nagging. Stop telling him to pick up his clothes off the floor. Stop giving him lectures about his future. Instead, be interested in the stuff they know, and provide the platform to share that with you.
“You get to go on a journey with them if you stop judging every single utterance and weighing in,” Mogel says.
Boys also need you in ways that girls don’t. With girls, usually they have friends they can talk to about heartbreaks. With boys, that’s not something they will share with friends. That macho etiquette is still alive and well.
As the parent, you get to share the hurt, but you can’t immediately leap into wanting to fix it. That’s true for younger kids as well. One interesting thing Mogel noticed was that kids, especially younger kids in larger families, will immediately leap to telling their parents about someone being mean to them because they know they can get attention and that their parents will immediately use the B word — bully — and want to fix that for their children.
Don’t take that bait unless it becomes a clear pattern and it’s more than just a mean word or gesture.
Mogel reminds parents that it’s also OK not to have a conversation with your child if you’re not ready. It’s OK to say: “I need to think about this”; “I’m not ready to talk about this right now”; “I will give you an answer tomorrow.”
That’s a better scenario than snapping to a decision or losing your cool and starting the lecture.
As the kids Mogel has spoken to before she meets with their parents tell her: “Please tell my parents to chill, to chillax.”