I want the outside to match the inside. That’s one of the goals I have as a parent. I want my children’s outsides and insides to match.
Recently, I got to spend some time with some teenagers at a 4-H camp in West Virginia. One day, during a conversation, one of the teenagers admitted that she has some opinions and ideas that she has never told her parents. She is pretty sure her parents would disagree and tell her she’s wrong. The thing is – she’s a good kid; she doesn’t want to upset her parents or disappoint them. So she just has never told them her thoughts. Immediately, other teens in the circle nodded their heads and said, “Me too.”
I listened. Like as hard as I could possibly listen. Silently, I begged my brain to absorb it all and remember every word. I told the teenagers I felt like a spy – an undercover mom sneaking peeks into the minds of teenagers.
These young adults are hiding entire parts of themselves from their parents — important opinions and beliefs — because they don’t want their parents to be upset or disappointed. Their insides and outsides don’t match because they are afraid their true insides won’t meet the approval of their parents.
And I’m not bashing the kids. These are really good kids. I’d be proud – extremely proud – to call any one of them my own. I totally understand these kids. In many ways, I’ve been these teenagers. Long after I exited the teenage years. I have spent too many years of my life molding an exterior that meets the approval of whomever I’ve wanted to impress – parents, teachers, friends, church leaders, employers, the Church in general, and on and on and on. I’ve worked hard to say the right things, have the right answers, believe the right things. I’ve wasted too much time worrying that if people got a glimpse beyond the outside to the real inside, they would be disappointed. So believe me — I absolutely get where these young people are coming from.
But that’s not the way I want it to be with my children. I don’t want them to feel like they have to act a certain way or stick to a script in order to meet my approval or receive my acceptance. I want their outsides to match their insides. Even if I disagree or if it’s not what I would chose for them.
I want authentic relationships.
As parents, we lay the foundation for authenticity and acceptance when our children are young. They notice how we respond to certain things they say – whether we listen to their opinions and accept them as valid or whether we try to convince them they are wrong or our way is better. I’m not saying we should give up our responsibility to teach them values or to correct false ideas. No, I’m saying we can do that within a framework of respecting our children and valuing their thoughts and ideas.
I think it plays out like this. When my little boy declares he wants to grow up and live in his brother’s basement, I can choose to respond by lecturing him on the value of hard work and independence and aiming high; I can scoff at him and make it clear that he would be a huge disappointment and embarrassment to the entire family if he lived in someone’s basement! Or I can respond by smiling and saying, “If his wife doesn’t mind and that makes you both happy, go for it.”
When another son proclaims he wants to be a garbage collector because riding on the back of that giant truck looks like so much fun, I can furrow my brow and give a snort and explain that he is far above that job and nobody in our family is going to be a garbage man. Or I can hug him and tell him that as long as he’s happy and loves his job, I will be proud of him.
As we talk about current events or social issues, I can ask my children their opinions and really listen, rather than telling them what they should think. If I think my children are off-base, I may ask questions and calmly explain why I believe what I believe. But I can do that in a way that doesn’t make them feel like I think they are stupid or bad for having different thoughts.
When we come across writers or journalists or editorialists or famous people whose views differ from mine, I can discuss those ideas and speak about those people respectfully and with kindness. You know, just in case my children are wrestling with ideas or thoughts or feelings and wondering if they might agree with those famous people or editorialists. Because if I rant and rave about what an absolute idiot so-and-so is or how this person is completely evil for even beginning to think such a thing, my children won’t feel safe expressing their opinions for fear I may think they’re an idiot or evil.
Beginning when my children are very little, I can express appreciation for the qualities that make each of my children unique. I can let them know I see them as individuals, separate from me, each his or her own person.
When my teenage daughter disagrees with one of our family rules, I can listen to her requests and opinions and appeals. But if I decide that our rule really is best for her and our family, I can kindly, gently, let her know that she may choose differently for herself when she is an adult and she may choose different rules for her family when she has children, but that I have to stick with what I firmly believe is best. (I am still working on consistently responding this way. Sometimes a teenage daughter and a 40-year-old mother just get too emotionally charged to have calm, reasonable conversations the first go-round. Sometimes, we don’t get to THIS particular conversation until our third attempt to discuss it.)
Heck, this can start as simply as responding respectfully when toddlers claim a certain food is yuck-o! Or by listening to a preschooler’s clothing preferences. Sometimes I ask my kids which shoes I should wear with an outfit or which color nail polish I should choose — not because I really need their opinion, but because they feel valued and important that I would ask and then go with their suggestion!
As my children grow, even if they make choices I think are wrong, even if they have opinions I strongly disagree with, even if their ideas seem way off-base, I would MUCH rather know than not know. I would MUCH rather have an authentic relationship with a person I disagree with than a shallow, fake relationship with someone who seems to parrot my own thoughts.
It’s healthier when our outsides and our insides match up.
So I’ve been making a little extra effort lately to ask questions and listen, to appreciate my children’s thoughts and opinions.
How do you encourage your children to be authentic with you? How do you intentionally pursue a genuine relationship with your kids?