If we aren't careful, we can indicate to our children that we care more about rules than relationship. Parents fall into this trap when they become more focused on the outward behavior of their children than on the relationship they are building. Sure we want good behavior, but our long-range goal is to raise children who honor us out of a love relationship. This is one of the deceptions I wrote about in my book Parenting Unchained. In the book I also gave five suggestions for building that love relationship with your children.
1. When you spend time with your children, give them your full attention. Don’t accept or make phone calls that can wait. When you communicate with them, look them in the eye and make sure they are returning your focus.
2. Engineer times and occasions when your children will talk to you. If your kids are young, you can establish a pattern for this at bedtime, at mealtime, or some other time when the TV is off and your focus is on. If you are still working at the end of the school day, call home when the child arrives home from school and ask about his or her day. Traveling parents can FaceTime or Skype to maintain contact. With older children, especially teens, the time will be harder to structure and maintain, but it is equally critical. With a teen, you might explore an unpopular opinion on a topic to draw your child out (one you don't agree with.) With a fifth grader, I might tease an opinion out of them this way: “Drugs and alcohol must make people feel really good, since so many people take them. Why do you think people take drugs?”
Stay calm when your teenager voices what may seem to be an outrageous opinion. Sometimes they are simply “trying on” different opinions to see which ones fit. You may have to listen at inconvenient times to have any time at all. Give your teen plenty of notice that you want a time to talk. If your teen enjoys a coffee house drink or some other treat, use this as an excuse to get away for some conversation.
3. Be a student of your children—study what they like, and make an effort to become knowledgeable about those topics. For example, if they like a particular genre of music, learn about a few of the bands in that genre. Then ask your children how some of those bands or artists compare with one another. By asking them a question they can be an authority about, you are giving them a chance to educate you. Make sure that this particular conversation is not about judging them or their music. Those conversations may be necessary at some point, and you must initiate them when you see fit. However, to establish a pattern of conversation with teens, you will need to withhold criticism for the right time and place.
4. Don’t badger! Don’t keep asking the same question to try to pry information from them. If teens don’t respond with a long conversation, that’s okay. Badgering will push them away, while a patient approach will be rewarded.
5. Here’s an original suggestion (not!): Take family vacations together, and make sure each member of the family suggests some part of the agenda. This doesn’t mean that every part of the vacation is designed to cater to your children. I nearly always added an art museum to our vacation agenda, and one of my kids seemed to schedule an ice cream stop somewhere along the way. After years of family vacations, now I’m the one who whines if we don’t get ice cream, and my kids have developed an appetite for art museums.
While these five suggestions are simple, they reflect the parent's desire to really listen to, get to know, and show respect for their children as individuals who will eventually make big decisions. By laying a foundation of love and respect, you build a strong relationship with your kids.