It was the biggest American flag I’ve ever seen, and it was staffed on an extension ladder of a hook and ladder fire engine across the street from the long line of grievers surrounding the funeral home where the young man’s body lay. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, the premature untimely death of a teenage child, and yet it’s a reality made even more possible by the time in which we live filled with fast cars, alcohol, drugs, and the normal belief of most young people that they are invincible. To make it even worse and to make us ever more worried, it’s happening with almost regularity in our community, a couple of times a year it seems, and we all know it. One of my daughters thought about making her three-year-old son a scrapbook for the future filled with the newspaper clippings of these tragedies hopeful that when her young son becomes a teenager he might be able to learn about the dangers of fast cars, alcohol, and drugs from these horrific life experiences of others. It’s a lesson we desperately want all of our children to know, yet we struggle with how to teach it to them. How can we protect our children, our future teenagers, from making bad choices that may in fact endanger their lives?
One unlikely place to find a suggestion for us is in the recent children’s movie, “Nanny McPhee.” Here a magical nanny transforms a brood of unruly children into kind, well-mannered, considerate children by focusing on teaching them five life lessons. It’s lesson number three that we need now, a simple lesson to be sure, but one that sometimes eludes us. Lesson number three is LISTEN; in our case it’s listen to your children. Make time and take time to listen.
Oh, sure, you say, you’re already listening to your non-stop little chatterboxes. But what will you do when your little ones become – if they haven’t already and what they will surely become in time – adolescent children when their ceaseless chattering stops and they don’t talk to you about the real, important stuff in their lives? What will you do when there’s nothing to listen to? Prepare now for that eventuality by refraining from TELLING your children what to do or what to think and instead by ASKING them what they’re going to do or how they’re thinking on a matter. We can’t simply make our children safe by telling them how to be safe. Even if they learn to mimic our guidelines, they will have a lot more trouble following those guidelines when their favorite friends are assuring them that dangerous actions are not really dangerous at all. We can’t make them refrain from alcohol, drugs, smoking, etc. by telling them not to do it or even by scaring them or threatening them about doing it, especially when some of the friends they trust are saying something else. At the point when we’re struggling in a conversation with our teenagers about all this, we’ve already missed the boat. We haven’t been listening. So prepare now for your child to become a teenager by listening and asking questions instead of talking and telling answers.
It’s sort of like teaching math. You know, if I were to sit with your child as she did her math paper and I were to tell her all the answers to her problems and she were to then write the answers on her paper, she wouldn’t be learning how to do the math problems at all. Instead, if I want her to learn math, I must ask her questions, listen to her answers, and then be guided to ask the next question based on her past answers. That’s how a child learns something. The child’s brain needs to be engaged. It’s obvious that teaching is not telling in the academic world. It’s not the way for children to learn the lessons parents want them to learn either. I repeat, no matter how much we as parents want to tell our children how to be safe, our telling them can’t ever make them safe. Instead we must learn to listen to them and to ask the right questions in order to help our children think for themselves and be able to solve their own problems when they occur.
Sometimes it’s helpful to use role playing to help your child think of what he would do in a certain situation. Starting with a lead-in question like, “I wonder what would happen if…..?”, or “Have you ever thought of …..?” It’s important to listen to your child’s answer and to give positive feedback about what she’s saying. If you don’t know anything positive to say, just repeat what she said, “So what I hear you saying is that…”. At least in that way your child knows you are listening to her. No one keeps on talking or taking a chance on talking if the person listening puts down the person talking. Open your head and your heart as your child talks so that she will want to keep talking. Refrain from “constructive criticism”, which is a sure-fire way to inhibit your child’s willingness to talk to you. You need her to talk to you, and to keep on talking, so receive her words without judgment.
By working in this way you could be establishing a relationship with your child that shows respect and acceptance of him as a human being of value and worth. A relationship constantly fostered in this way will grow and deepen as your child grows and may prove to give your adolescent child the strength of character he needs when wisdom and good judgment are still years ahead of him.
Director/Elementary 1 Teacher