I have spent the past 20 years talking to kids. In that time I have heard a lot of the same themes come through. Often kids don't feel like their parents understand them or what they go through each day. The problem is that kids won't come and tell their parents what they want or need from them. One reason for this is because developmentally kids, especially young kids, find it difficult to see other people's perspective. It is as though they assume you know what is going on in their head. The other reason is that parents don't ask. Not many adults would have the courage to tell another adult what they would like them to do differently. So imagine how difficult it is for a child to tell a parent. There needs to be trust and an assurance that the parent will listen. This is not meant to make parents feel guilty. We all get busy with life, but it doesn't hurt to stop and reflect. Most parents I have worked with want to do better and improve their relationship with their child. We have to remember it can't all be one way, if we want them to listen to us we have to listen to them too. So, as a starting point of a conversation you might like to have with your kids, I will go through some of the things I have heard.
"Sometimes when I say no I just don't agree. I'm not trying to be disrespectful"
As parents, we can get very stuck on having our children obey without question. Sure, if they did life might be easier, but do we really want our kids to obey blindly? Don't we want our kids to have an opinion and express it when they think something isn't right?
What we really want our kids to learn is that there is a way to disagree and be respectful. As parents we need to remember this too. Often when our child argues it is infuriating and we dig our heels in. We tend to fight back with just as much conviction as they do because it feels like an attack on our authority. But if we really understand that this is not meant to be disrespectful, it is them expressing their opinion, then we can step back and focus on having a respectful conversation. They need to experience a respectful disagreement if they are going to be able to express their opinion respectfully.
"Punishment doesn't work, it just makes me feel sad"
I hear this one a lot. Kids will tell me that being grounded or being sent to their room doesn't stop them from doing things wrong. What it does do is make them feel bad about themselves and feel they make mistakes all the time. This doesn't mean that they think that they should be able to do whatever they want. Kids know that there has to be some sort of consequence when they do the wrong thing, but it needs to make sense for them to learn.
I recently asked some kids about what works when they do something they shouldn't. One child gave me an example of a time where they had been leaving food scraps in the family car. When the parents found out, the kid was no longer allowed to eat in the car. The child said to me "that worked, grounding me wouldn't have done anything". It is interesting that what kids will tell you, is what research is showing. Logical and natural consequences work better than punishments. The consequence needs to fit the behaviour, otherwise it just feels like they are a victim and not responsible for what they did. Maybe we should have been listening to kids all along.
"I love them even when I'm angry with them"
Like all of us kids loose their temper and will say or do things that they regret. But kids have had less practice at managing their emotions so they will loose control more often. They need us to not take their comments too personally and know that when the emotion has passed, and they can think clearly again, that the relationship will still be safe. This doesn't mean that they can use you as a punching bag just because they are angry. You are allowed to talk about how the words hurt you, but they need to know that the love is still there and that you know they love you. Likewise they need to know that you will still love them no matter how unloveable they may act at times. There needs to be a reassurance that anger does not negate love.
"I want them to spend time with me, just me"
It is easy for kids to feel invisible. Parents are so busy with work, chores and managing the family as a whole. At school they are just another face in a sea of children. As much as they might hear their parents say they are special or even how good they are, it doesn't really impact if they don't feel seen. Sometimes we think that because our kids are with us a lot that we are spending time with them. But taking them here and there or even being in the same house doesn't mean that we are spending time together.
Now spending time doesn't have to be hours of undivided attention to have an impact. It can be lots of small moments. A wink, a rub on the back, an "in joke", there are lots of small connections to be made. However, there still needs to be some child lead one on one time. It could be stories in bed or a board game, but it is in these moments that we build the space where our child feels important, safe and connected to you. When this foundation is built, this is where they will talk to you and share their life.
"I want them to be happy with me"
Most parent's response to this one is either "of course I'm happy with you" or "I would be happy with you more if you did what you were asked". Both of these responses miss the point. Kids want to feel like you are happy that they came into your life. That they aren't a burden but that you delight in them. Most of us adore our kids, but we don't show it as often as we should. If we take the moments to laugh with our kids, enjoy their uniqueness and express how we enjoy them, then we are allowing them to see what a gift they really are.
"I want to do some things for myself"
It can be hard to let our kids do things for themselves. It can definitely be frustrating and time consuming, but it is important that we do give them some freedom to try. Allowing kids independence not only gives them skills, but it builds confidence. Kids learn that you trust them and you will help them if they make mistakes. We need to be the safe place that they can explore and develop skills.
These are just a few of the inner thoughts that children have told be over the years. There are plenty more and every child is different with their own list of wishes. Kids won't just tell you these thoughts, we have to be a safe place for them and we have to be curious. If we stay linked in with our kids we should at least get clues of what they really need for us to know. Asking our kids what they wished we knew, or what we could do differently as a parent, doesn't put them in charge, it just gives us insight into what they need.