I know when my 12-year-old daughter, Lexi, finally falls asleep at night—her mouth stops moving! She's been a chatterbox since birth and sometimes, out of sheer self-preservation, I tune out. But she's on to my game. Just as I'm about to disappear into my imaginary bath of Calgon, I hear her voice bursting through my fantasy:
"Mom, what did I just say?"
Usually, I have to admit that I don't know. I'm sure a lot of you moms out there can identify with me. When I speak to teen girls in one of my workshops, I often ask what they most want to change in their moms. Nearly every time someone raises her hand and says, "Like, she sometimes isn't very focused when she talks to me. I wish she would, like, not wash the dishes or totally stop taking out the trash when I'm talking and, like, well, really, totally look me in the eyes and, like, listen!"
Right about then I start feeling, like, really totally guilty.
The Importance of Connectedness
The world of social science calls the ability to be fully engaged in your child's life "connectedness." And it's a vital ingredient in raising healthy kids. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that found teens who felt loved and connected to their parents had significantly lower incidence of pregnancy, drug use, violence, and suicide. Another study points to the fact that teens in families with "traditions" are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as violence, substance abuse, and unhealthy relationships. In other words, when children feel connected to their parents, they aren't as likely to look for fulfillment in destructive habits and people.
These studies provide some motivating data, but "connecting" or creating traditions can often seem like just one more entry on an already packed parenting "to do" list. So here's the good news: Being connected with your child provides a lot of bang for the buck. With just a little effort invested throughout childhood, you and your child can reap dramatic risk-reducing results in the teenage years.
For example, my husband takes our 14-year-old out for wings and guy talk nearly every Thursday night. Christmas day isn't complete without the annual unveiling of some gourmet wing sauce such as "Texas Butt Burner!" The wings are their tradition—their special dad/son connection. As I've spoken about traditions at my mother/daughter events these are some ideas I've loved:
• Saturday morning pancakes with Dad
• Sunday night "breakfast" with Mom
• Monthly scrapbooking nights with Mom
• A parent/child missions trip when each child turns 13
• Saturday hiking expeditions with Dad during the summer
• Bedtime foot rubs
• Having lunch at school with your child once a week
Best-selling author and child psychologist Dr. Ross Campbell says that "only if the emotional tank is full can a child be expected to be at his best or do his best." In other words, your child will be better at doing his or her part to foster a healthy functioning family—from taking out the trash to getting out the door to church on time to just being pleasant—if they feel emotionally connected.
The Mandate to Connect
For busy parents, the possibility of having children who do chores without grumbling is motivation to slow down and focus on their children in and of itself. But the primary motivation for connecting to our children should be obedience to God. Deuteronomy 11:19 is just one of numerous passages throughout the Bible that clearly expect the family and the extended church family to be the primary teachers of every child. This particular verse says, "Teach [the words and ways of God] to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up."
A casual interpretation would be, "Hey, do lots of stuff with your kids!" And a deeper look fleshes out this mandate. The Hebrew word for "sit" was "yasab," which means "to live and dwell together." Clearly, this references a deep connection, not just casual sitting. And when this verse challenges us to teach our children when we walk in the road it literally means "teach them by showing them your conduct in life." It's talking about moment-by-moment living. God has charged us with the task of being deeply connected to our children so that they will learn to live for him.
Recently I was gardening with Lexi so we could do something "together," as she'd requested. As we were working three feet apart, she plopping bulbs in the ground and me preparing the soil ahead of her, she rattled on about life, school … the grass. Suddenly, she stopped and complained, "I thought we were going to do this together!" She went on to explain that her idea of "together" meant doing the exact same thing. Three feet away wasn't close enough for her.
A week later my son was home sick from school. We decided we would read together. He went upstairs to get a book and disappeared. When I finally went looking for him I found him reading on his bed. "I thought we were going to read together?" I prodded. He said, "Well, aren't you reading downstairs?" I nodded. He said, "Well, I'm reading right here so we are reading together." An entire floor of house between us was close enough for him.
My two children obviously approach life with very different personalities. And because of that they have different gifts that need to be developed and different weaknesses that need to be addressed. If I don't connect with them, I risk missing important cues about how I can prepare them for life—the special purpose God has for them and the unique temptations that they're likely to face.
Making the Connection
Get your calendar out; now's the time to start connecting with your child.
1. Select a date to begin your formal connection effort. Write it in pen, and don't let anything get in the way. My husband is really good at this. He's often been at board meetings that were running late on a Thursday night. He faithfully excuses himself and simply says, "I have an appointment with my son every Thursday at this time." Some of the workaholics don't get it, but most of his colleagues admire him for his commitment.
2. Determine what your connecting tradition is going to be. You don't have to know this now. Take time in the next few days to study your child and think about their hobbies and interests. Take cues from them as you head into your tradition. Hit the local pottery studio if your child likes art. Make a mini-spa if your daughter loves manicures. Watch Monday night football if your son loves football. It's been a great sacrifice for me to break my "no football" lifestyle in order to connect to my son, but I'm actually learning how the game works and it's quite fun. Just do something you can do again and again and again. Make it "yours."
3. Enjoy the process and give yourself room. As you embark on this connecting journey, don't feel like you have to make up a tradition for every night or even every week. My daughter loves fruit smoothies. So, my mom bought the best blender she can find and keeps Lexi's favorite fruits in the freezer. Whenever she comes over for a visit, they mix up the smoothies. It's a very casual, but a tradition nonetheless. I find that when parents go overboard with daily or weekly efforts to connect, they end up getting discouraged because it becomes overwhelming. Just schedule the next special time of connecting when you've finished one. If it's two weeks, so be it. If it's a month, that's okay, too.
And here's one more little piece of advice: Be prepared for the side effects of connecting. Since my husband goes out with our son for Buffalo wings every Thursday, we have a little tradition of our own every Friday morning. Bob moans as he pulls himself out of bed and onto the recliner in our room. He sits there rocking and holding his belly, glancing my way looking for sympathy. I usually relent and ask as if I don't know, "What's wrong, honey?"
"Heartburn," he moans.
What a surprise!
Dannah Gresh is the author of And the Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity and Secret Keeper: The Delicate Power of Modesty (both Moody).
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