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'90s FAMILY : Insider Tips for Prying Loose Those Little Lips

October 12, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What's the problem? Nothing.

What happened at school? None of your beeswax.

Were you smoking? Leave me alone.

One of the missions of childhood is to keep personal business personal. But the equal--and opposite--task of parenthood is to get kids to communicate. Parents think they're being loving and well-meaning. Kids think they're being invaded.

Some children are naturally reserved. But in general, most clam up because it's the easiest way to deal with pressure. The best ways to get them to open up are gentle, subtle and indirect, said Linda Braun, executive director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Families First parenting program.

She said direct questions pressure younger children to reveal thoughts they might not have even formulated yet. Or they might feel their answers won't measure up.

Particularly humiliating to children are questions from parents who clearly know the answer already: "Did you forget the rule about jumping on the furniture?"

From age 11, children's reluctance to communicate is often part of a developmental need to separate. They talk on the phone to their friends and make a sanctuary of their rooms.

But according to Braun, communication is one of the three essentials of parenting--along with discipline and fostering self-esteem--and parents should persevere.

One way is to make statements (such as, "I see red paint on your shirt. I bet you painted today.") as opposed to asking questions ("What did you do today?").

Many parents have noticed that timing and the right environment can also be crucial.

Feeding them first helps, said one mother from La Jolla. "You won't get anything out of them if they're hungry--especially the boys," she said.

Phyllis Stephens, 66, of Laguna Hills, said she learned to trap her three children with a nearly completed jigsaw puzzle. "When I had one going, especially on a rainy day in front of a warm fire just as they trooped home from school, I would have just enough completed with a couple of obvious omissions glaring as they passed my card table. As they pulled up a chair the dramatic episodes of their day would unfold easily. . . .

"Once I learned not to react too strongly to a happening, they seemed to stick around. When I told my mother of this accomplishment, she sagely asked, 'Why do you think I used to ask you to shell peas?' "

Some parents today say they've achieved similar effects with car trips. Even short errands to the store can turn stones into babblers.

This might happen for several reasons, experts said. They can, for instance, avoid the intensity of eye contact. They also know they have their parents' rare and undivided attention.

"A car is perfect," Braun said, as long as the parents are calm drivers. One mother said she knew of a mother and daughter who drove off an embankment after their conversation led to a physical fight.

With younger children, she said bedtime is a perfect opportunity to review the day and make leading statements such as, "It looked like you had fun playing with your friend." When she wants to talk to her own children, Braun takes them to a restaurant.

Once kids do open up, it's important for parents to resist the temptation to lecture.

"First and foremost, you have to make a distinction between hearing what's on your child's mind and talking to deliver your own message," Braun said. Listening to children means hearing what's in their hearts and minds, perhaps paraphrasing their messages, and not responding with our own thoughts and ideas.

"What is important is for children to feel that they are valued and to feel that their parents are interested in who they are, not in who they want them to be."

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