Unless we happen to be hosting all the relatives for the weekend, I imagine that all of us have time to look up from our computers and greet our family members when they walk
through the door and take a moment to check in. Of course, parents often complain that kids won’t talk about their day anyway. Parents offer the following familiar scenario:
“How was school?”
It could be the questions we’re asking, the tone we’re using, the pattern we’ve established, or that we’re actually busy ourselves and their lack of interest in talking to us is something of a relief as well as a disappointment. However, if we’re serious about building strong relationships with our children, we can address these issues. The following script is something I’ve used with my own kids and with kids I work with to get them interested in talking with me.
“Different question today. What’s on your mind these days?”
“Really, I’m interested. I know we don’t make a lot of time to talk, but I really want to hear about your life. I don’t even care if it’s just a cool YouTube video that made you laugh. Share something with me.”
“I’m busy. I have to do my homework.”
“Fair enough. But I’m asking for five minutes of your time before you go to bed tonight. Do you want to let me know when it works for you, or do you want me to ask again later when I have time?”
As the example illustrates, connecting means taking a genuine interest in our kids’ lives. We may want to discuss their grades but we may have to begin with something more palatable for them. The younger they are when we begin this, the better it is for the relationship.
Knock Before Entering - Instead of starting a conversation with a bunch of questions, try doing what Harvard psychology professor Robert Kegan calls “knocking before entering” and asking your child when it would be a good time to spend 10 minutes with you, either to talk about your respective days or to do something enjoyable together. (It can be for longer, but it’s harder for them to give a flat ‘no’ to a polite request when it’s for such a brief amount of time.)
Show Interest in Their Interests - Catch yourself being uninterested when your child is speaking, and make a decision to be interested in this child of yours, even if the topic isn’t one you love. Let them finish their story, even if it’s long or boring. You don’t have to lie about what a great story it was, just “Thank you for sharing” will suffice. This doesn’t have to happen for every story, but consciously pay them real attention, the type you’d give a famous person, on a particular occasion. Let your kid feel famous for you for that moment.
Ask Questions - Notice yourself being naturally interested in something your child is doing, and ask if she or he would like to tell you about it. Offer an observation or a question about it that is unlikely to feel judgmental to your child: “What made you choose to go with orange in that painting there?” or “How is it going compared to last week?”
Acknowledge Your Mistakes - The next time you say something harsh or snippy, acknowledge it to your child and let her know that that’s not really the way you want to be with her. “I can do better - at least I’d like to and will try. Bear with me.” Doing so models powerfully for your child that she can own up when she makes a mistake.
Can you guess the bonus in using these approaches with your child? These tips help us also model self regulation skills for kids, a first step toward children's own paths toward self regulation. For example, tip #1 above demonstrates impulse control; tip #2 shows sustained attention; tip #3 requires flexible thinking to consider another person's perspective; finally, tip #4 illustrates self-reflection, accountability, and even goal-setting! By changing how you interact with your child, you have the power to not only build a stronger relationship, but also help your child gain the ability to self-regulate and self-manage: in other words, increasing those critical Executive Function skills that help your child succeed academically and in life.
Massachusetts Distinguished Educator Michael Delman founded Beyond BookSmart, previously Thinking Outside the Classroom, in 2006 and serves as its CEO. In addition to being a highly sought after Executive Function coach (his favorite part of the job), he also helps the leaders of his team achieve greater levels of efficacy. An avid researcher and developer of tools and strategies to help students become more effective, Michael led Beyond BookSmart to become the first organization to apply Dr. James Prochaska’s Transtheoretical Model of Change to help students improve academic performance. Michael presented his application of the model to Dr. Prochaska himself, whose Department of Psychology at the University of Rhode Island endorsed his approach. From a sole proprietorship in Framingham, Massachusetts, he has grown the company to offices in Chicago, Providence, and New York City, and to include online academic coaching throughout the United States and internationally.
Michael is also the co-founder of the McAuliffe Regional Charter Public School in Framingham, Massachusetts, a middle school in its 11th year of operation teaching over 350 students through the Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound school model. He served as McAuliffe’s founding principal and has been an active member of its Board of Trustees since 2008. Prior to that, Michael taught in the Southborough Public Schools for eight years, during which time he received the Anti-Defamation League’s Teacher Incentive Award for creating a superior learning environment for his students.
As an educator since 1982, Michael’s primary mission has always been to make learning relevant and to help young people find capacities in themselves that they don’t know they have. His undergraduate degree from Brown University is in Public Policy and American Institutions, and his Master’s degree from Lesley University is in Middle School Education.