You might think it is a sign of progress that parents in the UK now spend more time with their children than they did 50 years ago, but, in fact, they actually feel an uneasy lack of closeness to them. And the children are more anxious. And everyone is feeling lonelier. So why?
It’s always been the case that parents sometimes view their children through a distorted lens. The barrister cross-examines his son who claims his teacher doesn’t want parents correcting homework before it’s handed in; the therapist father thinks the classroom bully is causing his daughter’s tantrums; the full time parent confuses her child’s achievements with her own worth. But today’s fierce devotion to every detail of a child’s life is an obstacle to intimacy and shared fun. Think back to your early years. Are you sure your dad knew the name of your class teacher right off the top of his head? It’s likely your mum didn’t track your moment to moment academic and social ranking like a day trader. And this is the paradox. Distance between parent world and child world allows each to get perspective, to really see each other.
So how to avoid this growing divide? Try treating your child like a stranger! Conduct an experiment. Think of your son as a nephew from the other side of the country who is staying with your family for a few days. Imagining this new persona for your son creates curiosity, decorum and healthy interest. Here is this new person! How curious I am about his ideas and interests! Soon he will be gone from here! Through his eyes, I can see the world of 2019 from a fresh and fascinating perspective. Find out what makes him tick while you have the chance.
Be the listener with your children: “Tell me more. Ah, I see. Have you been in a situation like this before? How did you handle it? What are you considering this time? What is the outcome you’re aiming for?” Adults know that their all kids get low on emotional fuel after a long day at school. Home is a soft landing. When a child is cross or crabby a kindly listener can be a balm.
What else can you do to feel closer to your children?
It’s a fact that everyone laughs more when watching a comedy in a theatre, in the company of strangers, than they do while watching alone. Take your children to a play or performance. Talk about it afterwards. Why do you think the characters acted the way they did? What parts were the funniest? Did any of it make you tear up?
Go places and talk about where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. It can be as simple as a picnic in a park. There is so much conversation fodder: strangers to observe, ducklings, dogs, kites, small children raising around.
Welcome in the strange characters in bedtime stories. Share imaginative leaps into their world by talking in an unhurried way about what you or your child might do at the chocolate factory or in the forest at night.
When your formerly chatty son becomes more self-conscious and less forthcoming, consider him the newest member of your basketball team or domestic maintenance crew. See if it’s easier for him to talk while shooting hoops or washing the dog.
Don’t mistake your daughter’s verbal sophistication with maturity, when she’s tired it’s normal for her to melt down like a toddler. If she dumps endless social drama in your lap, don’t make her problems your own. Picture her as the garrulous female you’ve been seated next to at a social tea. “Is that so? How frustrated you must feel.”
Do actually engage with strangers. Take up a hobby or community project. Become a bit of a stranger to yourself and your family. Then tell your child about who you met, what you did and how you felt. It can build a friendly bridge between you.
The German poet Rainer Rilke wrote: Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow. IF they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.
Dr Wendy Mogul is a clinical psychologist, parenting expert and author of the upcoming Parent Talk: Transform Your Relationship with Your Child By Learning What to Say, How to Say it, and When to Listen.
By Wendy Mogel, PhD
This article first featured in Families Magazine.