Values of a Strong Relationship
Conversation is a Two-Way Street
Have you ever been in a restaurant and noticed that table with the couple who doesn't speak? They just focus on their food -- either because they've run out of things to say or they know they'll fight if one of them starts a conversation. Being able to talk constructively about everything from grooming habits to mortgage refinancing is key to a good marriage. If you can air your disagreements, you have a better shot at resolving disputes -- and growing together instead of apart over time.
To help children learn to converse in a meaningful way, Dr. Rotbart offers this advice: "Teach your kids how to listen to others by listening to them." When your child comes to you with news about her friends or a toy that she wants, stay in the moment. "Don't think about the work you left at the office or the dishes you need to wash," Dr. Rotbart says. "Focus on listening to your child without interrupting. Then ask a few questions or make a comment to show her that you've paid attention and what she's said is important to you. This will help teach her to be a good listener."
It's equally crucial to teach your child how to share her thoughts instead of relying on flippant remarks or grunts. "It took me a while to realize that my older son wasn't avoiding me," says Ames. "He's just a lot like his dad, who isn't a big talker. I do carry more conversational weight in my marriage, and sometimes that's exhausting." She decided to work on her son's conversation skills in the hope that his future partner won't have the same issue she has in her own marriage. Her best solution? Car rides. "I stopped letting him take along video games in the car, and we've discovered that we actually have a lot to talk about," she says.
It Helps to Fess Up About Your Feelings
Ask a boy about his day at school and he'll probably say, "It was fine." Ask a girl and she'll be more likely to say that her best friend didn't sit with her at lunch, she's happy she got a part in the school play, or she's nervous about her math test. Indeed, researchers have found that men are typically less able than women to identify their emotions and empathize with others. This inequality starts early, says Susan Witt, Ph.D., professor of child and family development at the University of Akron, in Ohio. Parents tend to comfort little girls who cry but are more likely to tell sons to "man up" and stop sniveling. "Men who were taught to suppress their emotions as children often become husbands whose wives complain that they can't open up," says Dr. Witt.
How can you raise kids who'll be emotionally engaged? As always, this lesson is best learned through example. Even small things, like pointing out a cartoon character's feelings, can help your child learn to identify and talk about his own.
When I was a kid, I had a crush on Mr. Spock, the Vulcan science officer on Star Trek who struggled to contain the emotional life he inherited from his human mother. Ironically, I married my crush, in the form of a software engineer. I love my husband's intellectual agility, but I sometimes wish he acted more like a girlfriend and tuned in to my emotions the way I understand his.
I used to worry that my son would be just as apt to miss other people's emotions -- until my husband was laid off from work last summer. I was in my home office when Aidan stopped in and said, "It sure is hard for Dad to talk about his emotions, Mom."
I looked up from my computer, startled. "What do you mean?"
Aidan explained that he'd been making lunch when his dad came into the kitchen and said, "Grilled cheese, huh? That's a cheap lunch. Good thing, since I lost my job today."
"And then what?" I asked.
"Then Dad just went upstairs without saying anything else," Aidan said. "He must really be sad."
"He is," I told Aidan, "and it's good you see that. Now let's think about how to make him feel better."
Yes, I thought, as I followed Aidan upstairs, whoever loves my son years from now will be very lucky indeed. He'll do some of the cooking and cleaning, he'll treat her with respect, and he'll make great conversation. Most important of all, he'll try to understand how she feels.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Parents magazine.