During our nightly bedtime talks, my 7-year-old daughter has been updating me on the machinations of which girl would, and wouldn’t, let so-and-so play with so-and-so. I listen in the dark as she reflects on the most important part of her day, recess, sometimes with an operatic, "How can I stop this agony?" and more often a wistful, "It doesn’t matter. I’ll just sit all alone."
After a few nights of this, I revved up into helicopter mode and emailed the parents of one of the girls to check in about what I was hearing. The father immediately wrote back that he’d been talking with his daughter, as he does every night, and as far as his daughter is concerned, she and my daughter are solid and there’s nothing to worry about. (Confession: My daughter got the fretting gene from me.)
A national mandate: 10 minutes a day
Look at that, I thought: both of us were hearing from our daughters during night-time talks. I’m talking about talking the talk that goes beyond “How was your day?” and “What did you do at school?” (Why oh why do we ask these questions when we already know we’ll hear “fine” and “nothing”?)
At GreatSchools, we preach the value of reading to your children every day (ideally 30 minutes) – even older kids - because it’s so integral in laying the foundation for a child’s academic success. But what if a “talk to your child at least 10 minutes a day” rule was instituted nationwide? How many more kids would find the time to connect with their parents about the things that just never get the time? How many more parents would get to know the children they love so much? Life, school, work – it’s all so rushed that if we don’t make it a daily practice, days fly by before we get a chance to connect with them. Forget about it long enough and the person you’re raising just might leave the house at 18 a stranger.
Car talk ...with 7-year-olds
Tuck-in talks aren’t the only time to catch your kid. With my son, I long ago learned to prick up my ears in the car, a safe space where he’d free associate as one would to a therapist: me playing the omniscient and non-judgmental driver-cum-listener who would hear the most astonishing questions, confessions, and revelations about school and life. Case in point, when he was about seven, just as we were pulling in front of our neighborhood farmers market: “Mom, why are we here?”
“We always come here on Saturdays," I answered. "We're just getting a few fruits and vegetables. It won't take that long.”
“No, I mean why are we here, on the planet? What are we supposed to be doing here?”
Keeping midnight hours
These days, I must be more strategic, accessing him during the most difficult time of “day” for me: late at night. As author Michael Riera writes in his excellent Staying Connected to Your Teens: How To Keep Them Talking To You And How To Hear What They're Really Saying, parents of teens might want to set their alarms to wake up when most humans are sleeping. That’s when your vampire child is most likely burning his brightest and if the moment is right, you’ll find him at his best self – open and accessible and a beautiful blend of the child you knew and the future adult he’s going to become. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll tell me what’s actually happening at high school and, if the stars align, briefly open up about his life that most of the time is an impenetrable locked door.
So yes, of course we want to support our children’s academic success by reading to them for those 30 minutes. And don't forget the 10 minutes a night, per grade, homework rule. (Oy, don't get me started on that nonsense!) But IQ isn’t everything. A child with a well-fostered EQ (emotional intelligence) is far more likely to be a successful adult, one who has learned, often through the regular attentions of a caring adult, vital life skills like empathy and self-control. So let’s hear it for the 10-minute-a-day (only 10!) talking rule, which isn’t really a rule at all, but a pleasure and reminds us why we had them in the first place.
I'm curious how other parents do it: How much do you talk to your child, and where and when do they open up?