Sharing About Yourself
Most of what parents have to give their children is information about who and how they are. Learning about one's parents teaches children about themselves. “In a lot of ways I'm like my dad.” One reason adopted children seek out their biological parents is to claim important personal history in order to better understand themselves.
An important part of giving guidance is allowing your children to come to know you, their guide. Both your personal history and your current experience with life have much to teach.
Sharing Personal History
Consider how much guidance you can give by sharing information about your personal past. By sharing with your children bad decisions you made as a child (“I decided school wasn't worth the effort and dropped out”), you can help them learn from your mistakes.
You can also help them learn from good decisions that you made (“I was badly injured playing sports freshman year, but I didn't give up, I worked hard to rehabilitate, and sophomore year I was able to play again”). In this case, you give them a personal example of determination. There are powerful cautionary and inspiring stories to be told by sharing your personal history.
The way you treat your child teaches him how to treat himself. Continually criticize your child, and he learns to become self-critical. Constantly value your child, and he learns to become self-valuing.
Sharing Current Experience
You also can provide guidance by sharing the experiences from your life now. Your child has a problem with temper when frustration goes on too long or gets too high at school, so you share your own experiences with managing frustration at work. You also share strategies you have developed to keep frustration from exploding into anger. “I've learned to shrink daily frustrations down to size by comparing them to really serious problems that I'm grateful I don't have. And if I feel myself moving toward anger, I've learned to change my mind and think of happy things instead. These techniques work for me. Maybe they could work for you.”
Or you lose your job, and your household income drops. How can you use this experience to teach your child? “What's happened to me has an important lesson for you to understand. There's no lifetime employment. There's no permanent job. There's no secure occupation. That's how life is for me and how it will be for you. So I'm going to be talking to you about how I am going about looking for new work and how I keep my spirits up while I'm looking. We will all be learning to live on less money for a while until I find another job, so I will also be talking to you about that. Knowing how to sometimes make do with less is another skill you will need in life.”
Children Learn from Other People's Lives
Why would parents withhold this information? Parents give many reasons. “Parents aren't supposed to talk with their child about their mistakes or problems.” “My child wouldn't be interested.” “I'm not comfortable talking about myself.” “It's none of my child's business.” “I don't want my child using information about my past as permission to repeat my mistakes.”
Children are vicarious learners. They learn a lot about life by hearing about the lives of other people. Think of all they learn about life from the lives of friends. Thank goodness they can satisfy a lot of their curiosity about life without having to actually experience it. Hearing about something is enough.
So, a friend of your fifth grader's, who is sneaking out after her parents are asleep, tells your child about the wild side of life to be seen late at night wandering a dangerous downtown. For lots of children, wild friends are valued as good informants but are also recognized as bad companions. Your child is certainly interested in hearing about these adventures, but he or she has no desire to follow along.
Like your child's friends, you, too, are a window on the world if you will allow yourself to be. So at the dinner table, you ask about your child's day and get only a minimal reply: “It was okay.” You wish your child would tell you more, but further questions only get more minimal replies. No wonder he or she is not forthcoming. At the age of 12, your early adolescent finds your questions intrusive. They invade privacy and are emblematic of authority, often resented and resisted on both counts.
Parents who will not disclose information about themselves usually train their child to be the same way. If you want your child to confide in you, then confide in your child — not for support, but for education.
So what can you do to encourage more open sharing? Talk about what your day was like, what went well and what went badly, how you felt when things went badly, and how you kept yourself going even so. You can't force your child to talk, but by talking about your own day in specific and emotional detail, you are opening up a window on your world through which your child can see more about life, and you are modeling sharing behavior you would like your child to follow.