I learn so much from my friends who have kids older than mine, which is to say that I have very patient friends who answer my million questions about parenting. A few years ago, I asked a friend how she kept her older kids talking to her instead of shutting her out. “The loud, scary guy doesn’t get told stuff,” she said. “Things are still happening in his kids’ lives, but he doesn’t know about it.” Our reactions as parents really matter.
My main goal when communicating with my college-age children is for them to keep telling me stuff. They no longer need my permission and they aren’t really seeking my approval. Anything they tell me is bonus, whether it’s about their adventures or their relationships or their friends’ lives. It isn’t too hard for me to not be the loud, scary guy, but I’m still working on my poker face when my kids tell me something that is hard for me to hear.
I’m realizing that fragile, over-reacting mom doesn’t get told things either. The things my kids are telling me are very normal for college students, but I’m a risk-averse scaredy-cat. Just this morning at yoga, the instructor said, “Walk or jump to the front of your mat” and I honestly thought, “Jump? What am I, Evel Knievel? No thank you. I prefer to live.” I have to remind myself often that my kids aren’t reckless or wild, but they also aren’t middle-aged people who get scared at yoga. They are young, energetic and full of life; there are bound to be missteps and mistakes.
If I’m thinking clearly, I can respond to things my kids tell me with good, open-ended questions and statements like, “What feels right to you?” and “Tell me more.” If I’m anxious and solution-oriented, I jump in with unsolicited advice that favors choosing the safest option. This rarely ends well.
On more than one occasion, I’ve had to slowly back my teary self out of a room when I’m falling apart about something one of my kids has told me. I tend to go outside, remind myself that “this isn’t about you, Anna” and return to the room sturdier and calmer. I usually say something like, “My brain just needed a minute to catch up, but I really want you to keep telling me stuff.” It might be easier for us as parents to not know some of these things, but that just leaves our kids to deal with these situations alone. And it also means that we’re not seeing them clearly. What we’re seeing and loving is the version of the kid we want them to be, not who they actually are. And that’s not really love: that’s projection and idealization. That’s making our kids’ lives all about us.
I don’t have to love everything my kids are doing to love them; my love for them isn’t conditional on them making amazing choices all the time. In a world saturated with social media, our kids need to feel accepted enough to be real with us–we can be one of the few safe spaces they have where they don’t have to curate their lives to maintain an image. At the end of the day, we all want to be truly seen and still loved.
As parents, we get to bear witness to who our kids once were and see who they currently are and catch glimpses of who they are becoming. We just need them to keep telling us stuff; and they need us to just keep listening.