The Most Important Parenting Skill

Recently, my son came over,  looked seriously into my eyes,  held my hand and said, “Mom, it’s not that you’re a bad cook…really, it’s just that I don’t LIKE anything you cook.”

I felt a pang in my chest.  I could feel a rush of hurt swelling inside, my defenses started coming up, I wanted to prove him wrong, remind him that he did like my food, frantically I searched my mind for memories of past dishes he praised.  Then I noticed an underlying sadness; what if he grew up never having a warm memory of yummy meals his mother made. Everyone loves the way their mother cooked something.

In an instant, my ego collapsed and I sensed a desperation for my 7 year old son to enjoy the food I made for him everyday.   I sat for a few seconds as he held my hand.  Perhaps he noticed a momentary variation in my body language because he moved to hug me, then hesitantly asked, “Is it ok I said that?

I switched gears, “Of course it is.” I said, bringing him close.  I explained, “I would LOVE to improve my cooking.” then hugged him and asked “Do you have any suggestions?” “Whose food DID he like?”  “What type of things did he prefer?”   I asked with genuine curiosity, “What didn’t you like about this evenings meal?”

We celebrated the cooking of others in his life and then spoke about meals which were more exciting for him.  Soon after, he was beaming as he shared that one of his passions was to become a famous chef at a top restaurant simply because he loves great food.

I did not tell him about how healthy and nutritious my meals were.  I did not remind him that he actually loved my pot roast last month or that he should be grateful that I manage to cook something decent with all the things I juggle in a day.

Instead, I held mindset of a great detective and remained calm, rational and objective.  I took charge of both of our feelings, including my ego. I didn’t want to make assumptions and continued to ask probing, granular questions.   By this time I had become good at it.  It was not the first time I had felt the sudden slap of my child’s sharp honesty….I can still remember the day he revealed,  “Daddy is more fun than you.”

I wanted to shout, are you kidding?  I’m the good time Mom!  I dance and sing and organize just about every awesome event you’ve ever experienced.  I wanted to convince him with epic stories of how many times I’ve made him laugh and scream with delight.

But I didn’t.

I stopped myself from reacting and switched into loving detective mode, recognizing that for some good reason, at this moment, there was a perfectly valid reason for him to prefer his Daddy over me.

Again, I breathed in and said with a sparkle in my eye, “Tell me about the fun that Daddy has with you.”  “Teach me more about how you like to have fun.”  I quickly realized I would never be the Mom who flips him in the air and flings him down onto a bed but there were still many things I could do.  It’s because of these intimate conversations, we’ve created “dates” together where we explore what a perfect day of ‘just us’ could look like; we plan for it, then make it happen .  I also never forget to end the evening with a “How did this date feel for you?” My version of creating a positive mental “Save as” both for him and me.

I tell you these stories to offer new ways to invite your kid’s opinions forward and share something much deeper about their reality.  When  you create trust and intimacy consistently with your child, you become a parent who can calm your kids down, get your kids to listen and encourage your kids to share everything about their life openly and often, without boundaries.  When this occurs, you have the privilege to witness the intricacies of their fears, passions, hurts and hopes and intuitively you’ll both know something magical is occurring.

So before I tell you the secret to creating this kind of openness, I need you to imagine the most heartbreaking, stressful situation you’ve had with your child.

Here’s some examples of what children say….

  • I hate myself
  • I hate you
  • I hate my brother/sister
  • I don’t like school
  • I’m not good at that/anything
  • You like (insert sibling) more than me

Perhaps it’s something they did, such as….

  • Hit people or you
  • Break things in the home
  • Continuously do things that annoy you
  • Throw things
  • Tantrum in public
  • Storm upstairs screaming

When these happen, you may feel panic, desperation, anger or even sadness. You immediately want to fix, defend, argue, question and you can sense tension, anger, frustration, sadness in your body. So do your kids.

Now….what you do next will determine every future interaction you have with your child.  In that crucial moment you have the power to close the conversation down with your response. You might unwittingly restrict their openness & future honesty with guilt, shame or blame. However, there is a better way…

I’d like you to try a new move.

No matter what your child says, believe in your heart and mind it’s 100% justified and reasonable. They may say or do the most outrageous, horrible, frightening or hurtful thing. Still, trust there is some kernal of truth and validity to what they said, felt and did.

This means if your child says something extreme like “I hate you”.

Do not say:

  • That hurts me (which creates guilt in your child and shuts conversations down)
  • Well, I’m sorry you feel this way (which shows indifference and no desire to understand their pain)
  • It’s not nice to hate (which is judgmental and shames)
  • You wouldn’t like it if someone said that to you (doesn’t change a future behavior, makes kid feel bad & guilty)
  • That’s a mean thing to say (which shames them and confirms you don’t understand them)
  • Why would you say such a thing?  (again, guilt and won’t solve any of the difficult feelings they are experiencing)
  • How about a time out!?  (threatens, this dismisses the situation and punishes without trying to understand your child)
  • You haven’t seen anything yet! (threatens and shows vindictiveness)
  • Some other defensive, angry rant which adds fuel to the fire, aggravates your child and leaves you feeling anger, resent and later on, guilt.

Instead try this:

Energetically, make the switch and go into a loving and curious detective mode:

  • I’m really interested in learning about what happened here, please tell me more
  • I can imagine you’re in a great deal of pain right now and I must have done something to upset you. I want to see how I can fix it.
  • I can imagine you must be very angry right now.  I know when I’ve felt someone wasn’t listening to me, I didn’t like them too much either
  • Sometimes I do and say things that aren’t the best. Mommy/Daddy are learning new moves all the time.  Can you teach me how I can love you better?

When you do this, your kids feel met on their level. They also feel understood & safe which brings their defenses down. They’ll then open themselves up and become trusting. But to do this well, we must hold all the attributes of a good detective.  We must have a deep desire to transcend whatever conscious or unconscious thoughts, biases and blind spots we have that keep us reactive instead of responsive.

The beauty is, if we can do this (and we can!), we’ll raise the maturity of ourselves alongside our kids.  Through these interactions we’ll uncover our own emotional issues, unhealthy thought patterns and begin to heal our own wounds from our childhood that haunts our behavior as parents.

Ultimately we can use these opportunities to become our highest selves, so our kids can do the same.

Warm Smiles,

Rhea

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