Dear Dr. Erika,
I have a good relationship with my tween and I'd like to keep the lines of communication open while not being too intrusive, too lecture driven and still allow them to set boundaries.
Lately my conversation starters aren't working as well and they seem mostly annoyed that I'm interested in their life.
How can I actively participate and not intrude? Are there tricks I can use to start conversations and not give advice or lecture?
Invested But Disconnected in Michigan
Dear Invested But Disconnected in Michigan
I am terrible at small talk. People who know me well don’t make me do it, and our friendships are anchored in a few ways: shared experiences together, meaningless and sometimes meaningful brief texting, and less frequent but high-value deep, hours-long conversations and bonding.
Those I am closest with and bring the most private and personal life challenges to are those to whom I am simply the most connected. Though they may ask insightful questions or offer good advice, this is not actually what makes them my closest advisors. Instead, they are closest to me because we are close already when the panic at the disco begins.
Trust is built in tiny moments — intentional small acts of care, and sometimes seemingly inconsequential convos. I text a picture of two pairs of shoes and ask if they go with the dress I am wearing … They relay an embarrassing exchange they had with a barista while in a pre-caffeine state. I share a picture of one of my beloveds and brag about their everyday joys — a new friend, a homerun, a lovely piece of art. We reminisce and remind each other of our shared memories.
I am blessed, truly blessed, with the best of friends. I believe they keep me honest when it comes to parenting from the heart. For many of us, the iconic mother-child duos of the fictional world seemed to have friendship at the hot center of what drew us to them. In Season 2 of the Cosby Show, teenage Denise wants to clean out her bank account and buy a cool car. Her parents do not think it’s a purchase that has enjoyed enough thoughtfulness.
“It’s my money, and I can do what I want!”
“You see, you’re ready to plunge in and buy this car. Just like you were with that bracelet, the water bed, and the dead fish … at this point in your life, you can do pretty much anything that you please because in the back of your mind you know that we are always there to bail you out. We’re your safety net. You see, we’re so good at it, half the time you don’t even know we’re doing it … we’re your parents. You’d better remember that, young lady.”
Here are the points to remember: shared history (check), reminder that we are in this life together (check), and, finally, mutual expectations for respect (check). These aren’t grown in a day.
Or, take the enmeshed (sometimes cringey, but always lovable) bond between Lorelai and Rory Gilmore. Lorelai was no Claire Huxtable — I can’t remember a single rule in that household. Why would much of the same audience who admired Claire also have a secret yearning to mom like Lorelai? In Rory’s words in her graduation speech:
“My mother never gave me any idea that I couldn't do whatever I wanted to do or be whomever I wanted to be…”
Lorelai was far from perfect. This is also the woman who, in season 3, responded to her teen daughter’s partying with, “So not only did you go to a cop-raided party, but you started the raid? [Proceeds to sing, ‘Did you ever know that you’re my hero…’].” But this is also the mother-daughter duo with shared inside jokes and an enviable intimacy, and there was never any doubt that Lorelia was Rory’s first call in any situation — joyful, intimidating, desperate or otherwise.
So here’s my advice:
Make it a convo.
All of it: a lifelong convo. Stay close. No one wants to be interviewed — especially not at the end of a full day. If your goal is to seek out information or start conversations for the sake of it (read: inauthentically), your kid will feel the awkwardness of obligation rather than the warmth of intimacy.
Warmth of intimacy is well within reach. But to get it, you’re going to have to surrender the need to control the moments in exchange for mutual trust in the long-term. Your child needs to believe that you are wholly invested in who they are becoming and that you are always there as a safety net. You, in turn, need to trust that you are enough and that — as you no doubt know, even in their angstiest moments — your child wants a relationship with you.