ed note: Many interesting and confusing things are going in the world today. With the school year looming we thought it would be prudent to consider how to talk with about those issues that directly affect our kids. In this post, John encourages us to have these important conversations as we journey through life with our kids. We know that these conversations are done best within a caring, respectful relationship and we hope that having this conversation with you will encourage us all in our efforts to be the best parents we can.
Thoughts on talking to kids about big issues
by John Hoffman
Some of the old movies and TV shows I watched as a kid had these recurring scenes where Dad and son or Dad and daughter had “the big talk.” The talks were often about honesty – the importance of telling the truth or fessing up to the child’s wrongdoing. And in real life there was also an idea, which persists to this day, that dads and kids (moms too, of course) ought to have a series of big sit-down talks about important issues. Originally it was “the birds and the bees” (sex). Then more issues got added. Experts from various fields are constantly advising parents to “talk to your children” about safe sex, drugs, drinking and driving, sexual consent, internet porn, suicide—you name it.
I doubt that there is any father out there who hasn’t thought about having these big talks. Those issues are real and important. But I suspect that many dads feel uncomfortable about having these “big talks,” and then, later, uncomfortable about the fact that they didn’t have it. It can be hard to know exactly what to say or how to get the conversation rolling—or how to do it without making kids roll their eyes, hunker down and wait stoically until they can get back to video games or Snapchat.
If that’s your experience I’d guess you’re not alone. I can’t prove it, but I suspect that the “big talk” is a bit of a myth. And, true confession, my kids and I almost never had them. So keep that in mind as you read on.
My belief is (and, regardless of the availability of parenting techniques and science about child development, beliefs are a big driver of parenting) that it’s better to talk short and often rather than to go for the big talks. For one thing, kids have limited attention spans. I don’t mean just little ones. Even older kids are, for the most part, not very willing to listen to their parents expound about sex, drugs and suicide for very long. I sure wasn’t.
I never really planned out, or discussed with my partner, how to talk about big issues, but looking back, I can see that there were four elements to my haphazard approach. One was picking my moments to get ideas and thoughts out there in “little talks. “ I tried to do it in a way that meshed with my child’s interests, experience and stage of development, and made sense in the moment. I’ll tell you a story about that in a minute.
The second was having a series of these “little talks” in a way that not only gave my kids information, but also gave them the message that sex, or whatever, was an acceptable, comfortable thing to talk about. So, if one of these issues reared it’s head, and we really did need to talk, the issue had been on the table and we’d had a bit of practice in talking about it.
Thirdly, I tried to do all this in a way that didn’t make my kid run for cover. I believe that if you push too hard on these issues, lots of kids will tune out or duck and run as soon as possible. “Yeah, sure Dad, I know, I know…I gotta go.”
The other element to our approach was start early, but simply. For example, in our house, “sex education” started with a great photo book called A Child is Born, by Lennart Nilsson. We bought it when Holly was pregnant with our second child, as a way to helping our eldest understand what was going on inside his mom’s body. He was three. He didn’t understand everything, but he was very interested. If he asked questions, which wasn’t very often, we answered them simply in a way we thought he might understand. There was no need give him the whole nine yards right away. The information came out gradually, in a comfortable way.
I remember walking one of my boys to kindergarten one day. He saw some cigarette butts on the ground. He hadn’t seen much smoking, so he was curious. What are those? Why are they there? Why don’t you smoke? One of the things I told him that day was that cigarettes have a sort of drug in them that fools your body into thinking you need cigarettes. My first attempt at explaining addiction. I don’t know how much of that he really took in. However, he was interested. The next day one the way to school he said, “Dad, let’s talk about cigarette butts again.”
So we started an ongoing, on-again off-again conversation about smoking. It came in handy, years later, when I happened to drive by him on the street and saw a cigarette in his hand. Short, early exchanges about things like drinking and drugs also helped prepare us for the days when my kids started drinking (almost all kids do, by the way, usually starting by age 16, if not before) and smoking pot.
The one exception was drinking and driving. But that wasn’t a big talk. I was very short, more like, “If you want to drive my car, just don’t do it, ever.” And, that was combined with a clear, repeated statement, “If you need a ride (for whatever reason), I want to you call me, no matter where you are, what time it is, or what you’ve been doing. I’d rather be woken in the middle the night than have you get into a car with a drunk driver.” I also said that to my kids’ friends, usually when I was driving them somewhere. If they couldn’t reach their parents, they could call me any time. None of them ever did, but, still, I thought it was important for my kids to hear me saying that to their friends.
I’m not suggesting I did everything right. There were conversations I could have had, but didn’t. There were times when I put small conversations off and later realized I’d basically avoided them.
If you prefer the idea of big talks, don’t let me stop you. You might be good at it. But if you find the idea of big talks daunting, maybe the small talks approach will be more comfortable. Overall, the most important thing is for Dads to keep talking to their kids, no matter what, not just about big issues, but about everything else too.