I’ve talked to many experts in the field of parenting through my work as a Certified Parent Educator with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Maryland. One of the warmest and most trusted of those I’ve come across is Dr. Wendy Mogel, author of the book, “Voice Lessons: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen.” I had the pleasure to sit down with Dr. Mogel and ask for her thoughts on parenting today. I hope this conversation inspires you to talk with your children, to care for yourself, and to find humor in the awe-inspiring and anxiety-inducing journey that is parenting.
Why don’t our kids listen?
In my practice, I noticed that most parents are adept and savvy communicators, even when mild tensions arise in relationships – until they’re talking to their children. It’s a paradox created by what we want for them: happiness, success and, oh yeah, cooperation. This bulky emotional agenda gets squeezed further by busy schedules, sleepy offspring (and weary adults) plus technoference (the distraction and allure of digital devices).
What are some common mistakes parents make in communicating with kids?
Good-intentioned, loving, devoted, intelligent parents botch conversational basics: their pitch rises, they talk faster and unwittingly come across as pleading, indignant, wounded, outraged. In tone and body language they signal, I can’t handle it when you act like a child.
For instance, when you use abstract words like “inappropriate,” “focus” or “disruptive,” and deliver them in a stern tone of voice to little boys, it sounds like the adults’ indecipherable noises in the Peanuts cartoons: “Wah Wa Wa Wah Wa Wa.” On the other hand, little girls develop language and social skills earlier than boys. They seem very verbally sophisticated, and we mistake that for emotional maturity. Then we interpret their meltdowns as worrisome regression or manipulation. But they are only little kids.
What suggestions do you have for improving parent-child communication?
That paradoxical agenda that trips parents up in their language is that they want their kids to be happy all the time AND high achieving. It’s that bulky agenda, wanting them to be happy, successful and cooperative. This is asking a lot from these little primates. At various times, they can be like all Seven Dwarves: Sleepy, Grumpy, Sneezy, Bashful, Happy, Dopey, even Doc!
Like Doc, children are really wise, they are our spirit guides in disguise. For example, we all need vitamin N: Nature. That’s why it’s so good to have a dog. We walk the dog, we get exercise, and we are able to clear our heads, all with the dog leading the way. And children are so much like dogs – they say, “Wait a minute, there is an interesting smell.” Or, “Stop, I hear something, let’s stand still and wait.”
Children are often much more like Happy than we are, because adults are trying to get their happiness through their children. It is a form of emotional enslavement if our happiness is coming from, and dependent on, our child. Instead, we can follow the children like we so generously follow the pets. And we can give them (and ourselves) the space and grace to be Bashful, or Sleepy, or any other way humans can feel and behave.
The idea of gender fluidity can be confusing for parents. Any advice?
I want to stand in both spots. Part of our panic about gender fluidity is that we are going to make a mistake, or afraid their life will be harder. I really want parents to have an open mind, and at the same time recognize some general characteristics that are gender specific.
Here’s an illustration. A 7-year-old boy climbed into bed with his parents and said to his mom, “I just want to see your beautiful face one more time before I die.” She got nervous, and I reminded her that a classic Gesell Institute book on child development is titled “Your Seven-Year-Old: Life in a Minor Key.” A lot of 7-year-olds are preoccupied with death; it’s the first age where they recognize the finality of it. They are cognitively and emotionally ready to understand death, and they can seem pretty morbid.
Understanding the developmentally predictable characteristics of age and gender helps parents to not freak out. Each individual child won’t fit into that slot, and we don’t want them to. But the bigger picture is that it can give you wonderful clues – like the 7-year-old morbidity.
Are the kids OK after Covid?
We don’t really know. But one thing we do know is that the newsfeed loves terror and is in wild competition for our eyeballs. Anything sensational that will scare parents is highlighted, “The Girls are Anxious and Depressed, The Boys are Depressed and Violent.” I think parents are more frightened than children. We do a lot of future-tripping and it’s pretty negative. That’s why it’s good to think of children like dogs because they will lead you on an incredible journey if you make the time and space for that to happen.
We need to be open-eyed and open-minded, but the worry-feed is pretty powerful. It makes parents nervous, nosy, and controlling with their kids.
How can parents manage their own anxiety?
Step back from the “worry-feed” and focus on what might be helpful to your child. The most important 21st-century skill for kids is to be able to have conversations with people they don’t know well. We want them to have access to inspirational adults, to be able to develop conversational skills. Kids often email their professor the night before a paper is due and ask for an extension. Instead, we want them to go to their professors as soon as they get the assignment and ask them, “This is how I’m thinking of approaching this paper, do you think it’s the right track?” Students will get a higher grade by that interaction alone.
And today, when you pick your child up from school, or the first time you see them, don’t interview them for pain, “Oh honey, how was your day?” or “How was the math quiz? Is your teacher understanding your learning style any better today than she did at the beginning of the year?” Instead, smile warmly at them and say, “I thought about you today … ” and then insert their passion; dinosaurs, slime, Pokémon cards, Tik-Toks. It shows them you hold them in mind when you are apart. It gives them a good internal narrative which is, “My Mom thinks about me. She is enchanted with my enchantment. She is captivated by what captivates me. This makes me feel strong and worthy.”
Why are kids taking longer to grow up these days?
You know there never used to be a word “parenting.” It was called child-rearing. It’s a new word and concept. Yes, they remain young longer now because they haven’t had as much real-world life experience. One example I see of this is the separation anxiety moms have with their college kids. It’s the dark side of the wonderful friendship and closeness parents and kids share. There is a blending, a shared enthusiasm, and delight about culture. And then the tremendous loss parents feel when the kids leave.
Then, we don’t have proper initiation ceremonies the way every other tribe and civilization on the planet has always had. We mistake SAT scores or college placement for an initiation ceremony. And it is all just branding and ranking, which is what social media looks to do. And what I see in young adults is so different from the way the media loves to paint them. I met a 16-year-old girl recently. She and her friends have gotten flip phones. They don’t do any social media because they didn’t like what it was doing to them.
Do you have any tips for creating a healthy family dynamic?
Humor. The word Familect, refers to the private lexicon of your family. Private jokes in your family are just about the most precious ore we can mine. Start with the nicknames you call your kids. It’s fun to look back and like a rock skipping on a pond, trace the derivations and changes to nicknames, going from the original nicknames to the one that sticks.
Any last ideas you want parents to think about?
Consider “no phones” zones. Upon awakening, while driving, at mealtime, bath time and bedtime. Good luck! It’s not all or nothing, even small changes can make a big difference. Be enchanted with their enchantment. Be captivate-able. Be led more by curiosity than insta-judgment. Remember that children are family citizens, not royalty. They can’t pay the bills or drive, but they can get themselves ready in the morning, clear the table after meals, and keep their stuff off the floor in public spaces in the house (where someone might trip). And finally, consider it a privilege to see 2023 through the eyes of your child. They will lead you on an incredible journey if they trust you, if you make the time, and if you are willing to follow.