Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Real talk

This picture has nothing to do with anything. It just cracks me up.

In the past few weeks, between the news, our family life and Oliver's developing personality, I've been thinking a lot about all of occasions in his life when Oliver and I will need to sit down and have a serious talk. From the very early days of parenting, I think we think about those moments - sitting down side by side on the couch, driving somewhere in the car, around the dinner table - where we'll share wisdom, provide guidance or set limits.

After a few days in a row of difficulty with listening, pushing boundaries and even some of your basic, run-of-the-mill hitting, Chris and I sat Oliver down for one such talk recently, and it got me thinking. As Oliver's comprehension expands and his world becomes larger and more complex, any conversation I have with him could be "the" conversation, or at least one of "the" conversations in his life.

It can be paralyzing to think about all of the ways a few misplaced words might come apart and reconstruct into something you didn't expect.

I find myself watching for the moments that might carry more or less weight than they should and struggling to strike a balance between thoughtful, measured direction and authentic, genuine reaction. With a little bit of "relax, it's not that big a deal" thrown in.

Of course, it's a cultural cliche that everyone remembers (or has tried to forget) "the sex talk" they had with their parents, but its more than just the birds and the bees that stick with you forever.

For me, a long chat with my Dad about some of the themes in the Les Mis soundtrack we were listening to laid the foundations for the values I consider moral and just in my eight-year-old brain. A lesson in Sunday school about the evils of homosexuality snapped the reality of right-leaning Christianity into focus for my ten year old self, and an off-hand comment from an aunt in my early teens widened my understanding of "self" and shaped the way I thought about my body for a lifetime.  I could reconstruct those exchanges, and more like them, word for word.

Over the March break several library books I'd been waiting for came in - coincidentally all on the subject of parenting and mostly on the subject of discipline and talking to your children. They had been recommended by a blog I follow, and I figured the investment of a few late fees (because who am I kidding, there are always late fees) was worth taking a chance on a dreaded parenting book.

I made it halfway through one before I went my own pig-headed way and gave up. Not because I have all the answers when it comes to disciplining a 3-year-old (ask either of Ollie's grandmothers - I'm sure you'd get an earful), but because there was one thing I couldn't stop thinking as I read about how to speak to my child with positivity, and the importance of process praise and why you must limit offering rewards and punishments. I might agree or disagree with those philosophies to varying degrees, but more importantly, I doubt very much that I can learn a new way of talking to my son and apply it at all times, and I'm not sure that I really want to.

Looking back on "the talks" of my childhood, the ones that stuck with me and made an impact were all delivered as a genuine expression of the beliefs and values of the person I was talking to. They might not have swayed my opinion to their side, they may even have driven me in the opposite direction, but they have informed my behaviour for my lifetime because they revealed to me something real and true about the speaker and allowed me to look inside for something equally true in myself.

Now of course when it comes to disciplining a three year old there are many occasions where it isn't so much about finding a truth as it is about grabbing a pair of scissors out of their hand and reminding them to listen for the 50th time that day. But even the more insignificant moments can be the tip of the iceberg. And when it comes to trying to build a solid foundation it's hard to remember a ten-point checklist of "how to talk so your kid will listen". It's simpler, I think, to know yourself and your values and what you believe is right, and then just try and speak and act accordingly.

Or maybe I just haven't found the right checklist yet. Any suggestions?

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