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Finding the Best Ways to Communicate with Children
Butting heads with her 10-year-old son, Yonah, is an almost daily occurrence for Shira Adler.
Adler, a cantor who grew up in Lower Merion, and now lives in Westchester County, N.Y., only half-jokingly suggests that tangling with Yonah over such things as his unwillingness to keep kosher, his refusal to do what is asked of him unless it makes perfect sense to him and his reluctance to do his homework, is making her look like a bubby before her time.
“Everything about my darling son gives me shpilkes. All I can say is, thank God for my board-certified hair colorist who deals with the gray hairs that keep popping their shiny little selves up in response to my son’s equally prolific outbursts,” she says.
As any former child knows, rebelliousness is a companion to growing up. In particular, it is the job of a teenager to question authority and forge a separate identity from that of mom and dad. However, being aware of that fact doesn’t make the whole process any easier for parents or, for that matter, children — even those who are well into young adulthood.
At 27, Jess Berger is not that far removed from her own teenage years but is old enough to articulate what they were like. Raised in a conservative Jewish home in Conshohocken by loving parents, Berger was aware that her parents disapproved of her dating non-Jewish men; she did so anyway. “There was a lot of unspoken displeasure, not overt battles,” she recalls. For example, whenever she told her parents she was dating someone new, the first question they would ask was, “Is he Jewish?” “As a teenager,” she says, “it is hard to understand why we are raised to believe in equality and freedom of choice and all these underlying core values, and all of a sudden, we are confronted with the situation where that no longer exists. I think most adolescents don’t have the tools to process a parent’s perspective on that without feeling like it is a judgment.”
Recently, the Los Angeles resident became engaged to Drew Hopkins, her longtime boyfriend — who is not Jewish. “They love Drew and are excited,” Berger says about her parents. “I know in their heart of hearts they would like me to have a traditional Jewish wedding and family and raise my children in synagogue. I know that is how they feel no matter how much they love Drew. They are entitled to their opinion.” Shortly after her engagement, Berger’s family had already told her that they would like a chupah and rabbi at the ceremony and a hora at the reception. At least for now, she is not sure that she wants any of that.
Ask psychologists, life coaches and book authors what can be done about such intergenerational conflicts and they have advice to offer; it is not earth-shattering, but perhaps we could all use a refresher course in respectfully stating our point of view and listening to family members do the same. So, whether the issue causing the division pertains to dating, education, career matters or something else that does not involve unsafe behavior, the advice is similar.
Stop trying to control your children. Center City psychologist Doris Jeanette says parents are more effective when they don’t use guilt, shame, fear or other forms of manipulation to get what they want. “Guilt is unhealthy for the guilt-tripping and the guilt-tripped,” she says. Instead of trying to have power over your children, she stresses that you should aim to have power with them. The best way to do that is to cultivate a habit of spending time together talking and doing things your children like to do, the better to understand their world.
Understand your own motivations. Developmental psychologist Nancy Buck, the Denver-based author of Peaceful Parenting, says, “I believe that 100 percent of the decisions and desires of parents boil down to keeping children alive and safe.” That holds true, she says, even if parents worry that their children don’t want to go to college, become a doctor or lawyer or marry a nice Jewish girl or boy — because parents often believe that if their children do those things, they will have happier, more successful lives.
Get curious instead of upset. Parents are accustomed to giving advice, but sometimes, the situation calls for asking good questions. For example, imagine that your daughter is struggling in her first job after college and you think attending graduate school would provide her with more marketable skills, even though she is not interested in more education. In this situation, Irina Baranov, a certified life coach with Council for Relationships in Philadelphia, advises that you craft questions so they contain neither advice nor judgment but open up a dialogue. For instance, compare the blunt-sounding “Don’t you think you should go to graduate school?” and “So, really, what are you going to do with the next year of your life?” with “What’s up in the future for you? What do you dream about?” and “I think you are so neat, and the choices you make are so interesting, whether I agree with them or not. What do you see up ahead in the next five years?” In addition to carefully choosing what you say, Baranov says to pay attention to the tone of your voice and to your body language, both of which could impair the chances for an honest discussion.
Be vulnerable. When it is your turn to talk, share your own experiences in a vulnerable, non-preachy way. For instance, if keeping kosher is important to you but not to your child, Baranov says, “Talk about family values — why it is important for the family to keep kosher. Bring in Torah teachings, parents’ and grandparents’ [experiences with keeping kosher], what keeping kosher has meant to you in your life” and perhaps share a time when you didn’t keep kosher such as when you were in college. As you share your own history, leave enough room in the conversation so your child isn’t rolling his eyes but responding to what you are saying. Your curiosity may lead you to find out that your child does not want to keep kosher because he is afraid he will be teased by other kids at school. “Hear and respond to their reasons for not keeping kosher, and show that you respect and honor what they are saying,” Baranov says.
One way to do that is to restate what your child has just said so he absolutely feels heard, adds Adele Faber, the Long Island-based co- author of the bestseller, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. “Only then will he begin to consider what it is you have to say.” Faber is also a fan of writing your thoughts down and sharing them with your child as an addendum to conversation. “Youngsters can push away words in the heat of the moment, but words on the page, they will come back to,” she says. For instance, you might begin a post-discussion missive by writing something like, “Dear Son: I have been thinking about the topic you brought up and how important these things are to me and I hear you questioning them. I want you to know more about the values that I hold so sacred.”
Keep things in perspective. It is important to never lose sight of the big picture; as Jeanette points out, a loving relationship with your child is more important than what they do or don’t do.
For Adler, that has meant adapting to her son’s challenging behavior. Because he is a minor, she is able to exercise some control over his food choices. In return, she has relaxed the standards of what had been a strictly kosher home; however, she has not compromised on the principle that the family eats only organic, locally grown foods.
“I have not changed my core parenting principles,” she explains. “I’ve just become more mindful and clear that whatever choice I make as a Jewish mother, I do so with full consciousness and with an understanding of our background and heritage. I also explain that fully to them so they can be clear there is a consciousness to all the choices parents face and that it’s less about giving in, and more about being respectful of what it means to be a modern Jew, and trying to make things in our home flow in a peaceful way.
“In today’s society,” she continues, “I think this is a better overall lesson for my children, and one that I hope will still allow them to know who they are, fight me less on the way I choose to raise them, and maybe even come out of this phase with a modicum of respect and appreciation for just how ridiculously hard parenting can be.”
As for Berger, the former rebellious teen is now coaching teenage girls — and their parents — through the girls’ adolescent years. She offers this bit of wisdom: “The truth is, parents can do all they can to help their child develop good values and morals and religious affiliation. At the end of the day, you have to hope you have instilled self-honoring, decision-making skills in your child and hope they use them to be self-honoring for them, not to please other people. And that means allowing your kids to make a decision you don’t agree with — if it feels like a good fit for them.”
Gail Snyder is a Chalfont-based freelance writer and parent of two independent young adult daughters.