Getting to know children requires conversation -- not activity, not tickets to the Super Bowl or Father-Son Dinners.In fact, good conversation rarely occurs in the midst of activity.
Communication with children can't be scheduled for the family outing or at a specific hour at regular intervals.
"My parents have this thing about dinnertime," says Jeff. "They expect us to have meaningful conversations every night at dinner. We are supposed to share our problems over meat loaf at 6:15. Now, I ask you, how can you schedule your problems? And do they reallym think I'm going to talk about problems with girls with my blabby sister there? She'd have the news all over town before we finish dessert. And my older brother would laugh. But we're all expected to say something -- so I say my shooting is off i basketball or biology class is boring. Then they feel like they're confided in and we're sharing stuff."
Most of all, young people want parents to respect their confidences. One 14 -year- old says, "I used to confide in my mom, but she'd tell my dad -- and he'd tell other people. So now, I don't tell either of them anything."
Andy voices another comment. "My parents saym they want me to come to them with problems, but when I do they're either busy or they only half listen and keep on doing what they were doing -- like shaving or making a grocery list. If a friend of theirs came over to talk, they'd stop, be polite, and listen.m "
Kids want parental interest -- but they want genuine interest. And none spot insincerity as quickly as the young.
Sixteen-year-old Mark says, "My father is big on visibility. He likes to be seen being a good parent, so he shows up at school functions where people in town will see him. Like, he'll come to a game if one of us is playing, but he's never tossed a ball with us in the yard."
His mother, Mark says, is different. "She shows up at actual stuff, too, but not just to be seen. She's interested in us whether anyone's watching or not."
Many young people yearn for more one- to-one time with a parent.It is easier to get close, to confide in one person than in a group. Sometimes there is one parent a child feels more comfortable with, is more apt to share thoughts and problems with. But one-to-one time is apparently hard to come by in some families. Children don't want to appear selfish, so they seldom come out and ask for it.
Diane's feelings are shared by many. "Our family, like wolves, travels in a pack. If we are going somewhere, we allm have to go. My mom and I love Chinese food. My dad and sister don't. They love Mexican food. My mom and I don't. So we never eat Chinese, they never eat Mexican. We all go out for chicken -- which is so-so to everyone. We compromise on something no one enjoys very much -- but we're bored togetherm -- which seems to be the point."
Some kids, from families where parents try very hard to do the right thing, don't even know what one-to-one time is. Thanks to a burglar, John found out.
"The best time I ever had with my dad was when burglars broke into our summer cottage at the lake. The police said we should come up to see what was missing. Well, our whole family's made the trip dozens of times, but this time there were just the two of us. It's a six-hour drive. I'd never spent six hours alone with him in my whole life. Six hours up, six hours back. No car radio. We really talked. It's like we discovered each other. There's more to him than I thought. It make us friends."
The irony is, the family had a history of fine vacations, outings, and activities.
Cindy describes her father's best gift: time. "My dad gives each of his children a special weekend each year. Each of us gets to choose and plan how we want to spend our weekend with him. Susan and dad went skiing. Dana and dad went backpacking. Dad and I went to museums and galleries in the city. All year we talk and plan what we'll do. It's a special time to look forward to -- and a special time to remember!"
A working mother, a college instructor, takes one of her two sons out to dinner alone each Wednesday. Dad and the other boy plan and cook their dinner at home John says, "My dad and I have made great lasagna, fair spaghetti, fantastic blueberry pancakes, and burned chicken twice! We have a lot of fun -- we're learning to cook together."
Both boys look forward to Wednesday. As Matt says, "I enjoy my parents together, but I enjoy each of them more alone. We talk better."
Once while teaching in a wealthy community near San Francisco, I asked Students to write about thier most memorable experience of the summer. I taught five English classes that year, but only one student even mentioned the family vacation -- and she hadn't gone on it.
Katie's family had camped together for eight summers, but to everyone's surprise, her mother asked to be excused that August. She had, she confessed, always gone because everyone elsem enjoyed it. This year, she wanted to stay home.
Katie was ecstatic! She didn't like camping, either, but had gone to be a good sport. The rest of the family went, as planned. Katie and her mother stayed home. It was the first time the two had spent a large block of time together since Katie was a toddler.
Katie expressed delight at getting to know her mother tha summer, "not just as a mother, as a personm . I'll always be grateful for the camping trip we didn't take."
The most positive comments young people make about family life invariably reflect the greatest simplicity. Leisure time with children, unplanned, unorganized, often yields the fondest memories.
Melissa, a blue-eyed, blond sophomore, describes what she considered one of the best times her family ever had.
"One night last winter there was an electrical storm and and we had no lights , no heat, no TV, no candles. We sat around the fireplace together for hours and talked and laughed. The next day, I opened a drawer, looking for something else, and realized we'd had a box of candles all the time. I told my mother.
"Mom said, 'Yes, I know. But wasn't it lovely without them?'"
Organized activities? Lessons? Well- planned vacations? Fifteen-year-old Bob has probably never had any of those things, but he has, as he puts it, "some mother!"
"EAch morning she sits with me while I eat breakfast. We talk about anything and everything. She isn't refined or elegant or educated. She's a terrible housekeeper. She uses double negatives. But she's interested in everything I do and she always listens to me -- even if she's busy or tired. She knows all my friends and they all like her. Other guys have moms who dress better and houses that are neater, but everyone likes to come to mine. If we get crumbs on the floor, it's no big deal. My mom and I laugh together. She's not fancy, just a great person."
An eighth-grader, whose insight is better than this grammaer, perhaps sums it up best: "You don't get close to nobody by goin' and doin' -- you get close by talkin'. If you can't talk together, goin' and doin' don't help. And, if you can, you don't needm to go."