The conversation in my house is pretty open with few taboo subjects. I realised this again recently when my eldest daughter’s boyfriend was with us for dinner. He seemed to cope well, and I guess it was an early initiation to his girlfriend’s family. Over the chicken fettucine, the topics ranged from body parts and their many functions, to drugs, to relationships and the sometimes-humorous misdemeanours of extended family members. Everything was up for analysis and opinion from the youngest (14 years) to the oldest (21 years, 43 if you include the adults).
My mum was great at being open to any topic, but even so - I do remember hiding some things I was going through during my teenage years, to protect her; to avoid her worrying, or being shocked. In hindsight, I imagine I could have benefited from her perspective. So, my plan as a parent, has been to be unshockable – so I can do my best to be open to the stuff they want to tell me. I don’t want my kids to filter their conversation on my account, and I can only think of one occasion when I have been rendered speechless by a topic that they were Far.Too.Young to be thinking about! It’s this far too young assumption that often allows us to avoid discussing important issues and we need to remind ourselves that our kids are always going to be dealing with things before we feel they are ready. During my sons 14th year a friend of his took his own life, and I definitely felt that was far too young at thirteen to be walking through such tragedy. If your kids go to any regular NZ school, its guaranteed that they are seeing and hearing things that you’d prefer they didn’t. To be fair, most families bring their own events and drama that we’d rather not deal with.
Crazy inappropriate conversation at our dinner table, or on a walk, or family holiday, is an opportunity for our kids to share their crazy worlds with us, including the dark parts. There is a time for manners. It is our job to socialise our children with manners and courtesies, to help them navigate the big wide world. I want my kids to know that they should avoid swearing in front of nanna. But if my child feels they need to put on certain behaviours (like manners or the appearance of being happy when they are not) in their own home as well, I may lose out on deeper opportunities for knowing what’s going on in their world.
Humans are great liars– we mask our feelings all the time. Think of the people you avoid being yourself with, or refuse to share your feelings with. How many of us are like this with our own parents? So, it’s worth examining why, so we don’t make the same errors with our own kids. But it is important that your child can be authentically vulnerable at home. It’s important that space is made for anxieties, fears, and tough conversations.
Some kids try to protect their parents, as I remember doing, but I am sure that none of us want to be ‘protected’ from suicidal thoughts, bullying, bad behaviour, and sexual abuse. Creating a space that copes with talking about farts, body parts and drugs may be the first step. Today it might be farts in the bath. One day you’ll need to be talking about some pretty serious stuff, and you definitely want those channels open, and be unshockable.
First published in Aroha, the Journal of La Leche League New Zealand, December 2017