Before we have children, we tend to spend much time dreaming about all of the things we will do with them, and all of the meaningful, wonderful conversations we will share. Maybe we will dream and brainstorm with them about what they will be when they grow up. Maybe we will sit on the front porch swing and talk about all of the fun they had with friends at summer camp. Rarely do we think about, or prepare and plan for, the tough conversations of life.
Peer pressure, bullying, drugs, death, and yes, the dreaded topic of sex, are not topics that fill our parenting daydreams. As a matter of fact, these things tend to be the elements making up many of our parenting nightmares. Or, if not nightmares, at least the not so exciting topics that truly can shape our child’s thinking. But, does it really have to be that way? Can we approach the hard things in better or more comfortable ways? While these conversations may never become easy, I do believe they can be (more comfortable), without the anxiety that so many of us parents experience with these issues.
If I could share with you only one admonishment regarding this from my 30 years of parenting, it simply would be: DON’T FREAK OUT. If we want our kids to best handle the hardest things they will face in life, we have to be the first people, and offer the safest place, to which they can turn.
My wife often tells younger moms that one of the things she regrets doing with our oldest son is too often overreacting to the hard questions and situations he would bring to her. The mama bear in her wanted to shield him from the hard things, and she admits that the struggle to accept the fact that he was growing up and in a world that was going to challenge him, often parentally paralyzed her.
Eventually, she and I found a mantra that helped us better address the hard things with our boys: “We can’t always protect, but we certainly can equip.” Fully accepting the fact that our kids absolutely would face tough things, from broken relationships to illness to death, then working to create a safe place in which they could become equipped to face these tough things, are the two key components we found to be most helpful to us as parents. In turn, these things absolutely benefited our children.
Of course, the way in which we discuss the “hard things” may vary, based on what each “hard thing” it we are discussing is, and how each child reacts to the respective “hard things” he or she individually faces. Some topics may be more easily handled within the home, between you and your child. Other times, it is okay to look at a child and say, “You know what? How would you feel about us bringing someone else into our conversation?” For instance, if you are walking a child through the loss of a dear, loved one, you may want to have them receive encouragement from a young person, a bit older than your young person, who has walked the path of loss and is doing well. If bullying is occurring at school, whether your child is the victim, bystander, or even bully, you may need to have your son or daughter visit with a school counselor or teacher. Of all the hard topics, believe it or not, sex seems to be the one most parents tend to shy away from or overreact to. My wife has admitted that she would have rather tackled the subject of tragic death than that of sex, when our boys were young. Fortunately, we live in a day and age in which there are a myriad of resources, books, conferences, and workshops that can also help us help our children. Taking some time to find the resources that make us comfortable discussing the topic can be a great plan to prepare for that inevitable question.
However, at the end of the day, regardless of the great resources and tools that we may draw from, never forget that you, me – the parents – are the ones providing the toolbox. Remember, they will get the answers from somewhere. For me, I wanted that “somewhere” to be a conversation with Dad and Mom first, and creating that safe place where they knew they would never be judged, criticized or ignored when hard topics surfaced made all the difference.