5 Don’ts for Authentic Talk with Kids

I’m not always authentic with my kids when it comes to saying what I really think or feel about them. Or what I want from them in the moment. But I do try to be true to myself as the kind of parent I believe they need. I realized this lack of “authenticity” when I tweeted about a recent Atlantic article. The article’s author challenged mothers to avoid talking badly about their own bodies. If they did, their kids were likely to grow up with body image issues. Her point about bodies is the first of five don’ts for me in talking authentically with my kids.

1. I don’t say negative things about my body or theirs.

I won’t directly criticize my features to my kids. I tell my kids I wear makeup because “it’s my style” or “I like to look professional.” There’s truth to both comments, but particularly when it comes to foundation, I wear makeup for other reasons—the shadows under my eyes and the pores on my nose. They don’t need to know that. Likewise, I tell them I feel more comfortable in capris instead of shorts, but I don’t say it’s because of my aging thighs.

I’m also careful not to denigrate their bodies. If they question their own bodies, I point out I like that they’re healthy and strong.

2. I don’t seek emotional support from them, but I let them see some of my emotions.

I don’t want my kids to believe I have it all together. Otherwise, they’ll believe they’ll have to have it all together. They see me struggle, but the boundary I follow is that I don’t seek their emotional support. That’s the job of spouse or friend.

In my kids’ presence, I blurted to my parents that I’m frustrated with the appearance of my chest after a bilateral mastectomy. Okay, I’ll admit, I called them “my weird boobs.” I broke the-don’t-talk-about-my-body-negatively boundary. While my language may have been better, I believe it’s acceptable for my kids to know that I am going through an adjustment time.

3. I don’t talk negatively about my spouse.

Both my husband and I fail at this boundary when I’m stressed and looking for the car keys, or he’s stressed and looking for a kitchen utensil. But mostly we attempt to be seen as a team by our kids. We want to support the respect of our children for the other spouse (and for our kids not to believe they can divide and conquer in getting what they want).

4. I don’t tell them they’re smart, but I tell them I’m proud of their hard work.

The major proponent of this view is psychologist Carol Dweck in the book Mindset. Her research is scary convincing. Kids who are told they’re smart believe they have an innate ability and become afraid to make mistakes or fail in ways that reflect poorly on that ability. Instead, I emphasize the importance of hard work, and I point out how understanding our mistakes is vital to learning.

5. I don’t tell them not to try something in which they may fail.

Following Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, my husband and I allow my kids to experience failure. If they fail now, they’ll have less anxiety about failure later and take risks that will maximize their hard work and skills in the future. They will be more creative thinkers, viewing failure as a way to learn.

One of my daughters has had surgery for wandering eye, and we wonder if a sport with a ball is a good idea, but we’re letting her figure that out. My other daughter dreams about being Egyptologist. I don’t say how unlikely it will be for her to claim such a coveted role in academics. But I do I explain what she would need to do to get there: attain good grades in high school, prepare for standardized exams, find a respected university, and study in England for graduate school.

It’s not easy to restrain myself from making comments when I’m worried, upset, or even proud. Guarding my tongue for me requires a practice of internally making comments to God about my current feelings and trusting that he can hold them when I cannot say them aloud. I hope that my daughters will have the kind of authentic lives that allow this kind of vulnerability along with confidence and relational boundaries.

Heather Walker Peterson

Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.
Heather Walker Peterson

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