The novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman has said that “there are times as a parent when you realize that your job is not to be the parent you always imagined you’d be, the parent you always wished you had. Your job is to be the parent your child needs, given the particulars of their own life and nature.” As we guide our children toward compassionate, contented, and confident lives, we face a leadership challenge: how to talk with our children about what matters most, in the midst of our busy, complicated lives. To lead well in business, you have to not only care about your people, but also maintain trusting relationships with them built on ongoing communication about your mutual needs and expectations. This takes commitment and skill, both of which you can increase to reap profound benefits. This is true in parenting, too.
But such conversations probably won’t happen unless we lead them. The main purposes of these conversations with your children are to develop a shared understanding of the values most important to your family, see things through the eyes of your children, and lay the groundwork for ongoing conversations about these topics. Here, we provide a roadmap for how to do so, gleaned from the decades of research that we describe in our new book, Parents Who Lead.
If you have a partner in parenting (that may be your spouse, but it may also be a paid caregiver, your ex-spouse, one of your own parents — whoever it is that is your primary partner in parenting your children), we recommend you start by talking with one another about each of your children, in turn. Share what you each think they really need. Ask each other questions, clarify your understandings, push your partner to explain what he or she means. Listen with an open heart and mind.
Before you talk to your children, think ahead about how your children will hear what you say. Consider both what you want to talk about and how you want to approach the conversation. The way you prepare will differ depending on the age and personality of each of your children. While we can provide some suggestions for how to engage with children at different ages and stages, you know your children best. So pick an approach, and even a time of day, that seems likely to work, but be open to having a few conversations to find out what actually works.
- Talk About Values. Start by identifying the values most important to your family. What words or phrases describe the five or six things you hold most dear in life and want to convey to your children? They might include “love,” “generosity,” “responsibility,” “compassion,” “adventure,” “financial security,” or any abiding life interest that drives your actions and aspirations. It’s important that your children feel that they are part of the family’s conversation about values and that it is something you can revisit over the days, months, and years ahead.
- See Things as They Do. To achieve the purpose of these conversations with young children, you might ask a question like, “What do good moms and dads do?” or “What do you need from us to grow up happy and healthy?” For school-aged children, focus more on understanding what they think you expect of them and what they expect from you. You can prompt different aspects of their lives that will make sense to them with questions like, “How can I help you succeed in school?” or “What do you need in order to keep your body healthy?” For adolescents, you can discuss the expectations you have of one another. Ask them to describe what they believe you expect from them and listen to what they expect from you.
- Lay the Groundwork. These conversations with your children should set the stage for more talk about how things are going, what they need, what your mutual expectations are, how you will work together as a family to live shared values, and what all this means in the context of your lives beyond your family. As good leaders do, aim to make these conversations forward-looking, hopeful, and optimistic. If your child tries to rehash the wrongs done by you (or if you start to do the same), refocus the conversation about the possibilities of moving forward together. This is a chance to get your children excited about the prospect of doing things in new ways. Spark their enthusiasm by asking for their ideas about things you could try to do differently. Of course, this question has to be broached in an age-appropriate way.
Have conversations with each child, and write down what each one said. Stay attuned to their non-verbal behaviors. Examine your insights emerging from those exchanges. What did you learn about what your children need from you? What assumptions did you have that you discovered aren’t exactly accurate? What could you do differently as a family? How would you approach this conversation next time? Then, discuss what you heard and what insights you gained with your partner. If you spoke with your children separately, give your partner a sense of how the conversations went and what each child said.
These conversations don’t always go according to plan. Some children are more verbal, articulate, and introspective than others. Children can be distracted, moody, hesitant, or confused. None of this is surprising if it’s the first time you’ve asked them to communicate in this way. One of the benefits of doing this sooner rather than later is to make these kinds of conversations normal and natural.
We expect you will be surprised to learn just how much, and what, your children have to say about your lives together. You may uncover some of the crucial messages you are implicitly and explicitly sending to your children, some of which you may want to revise. Enrich your connection with your children by drawing them closer. Be open to their creative, often dumbfounding, and sometimes downright hilarious suggestions about what you might try together as a family. You may be surprised to learn that your children don’t necessarily need or want you to spend a lot more time with them. Rather, they may want you to put away your cell phone and your “To Do” list and just be present, both physically and psychologically.
Doable but head-turning ideas can emerge when you open channels of communication and enlist your children in making changes. Not only does engaging in these meaningful conversations help you to “be the parent your child needs,” but they also empower you to see yourself as a parent who leads and uncovers opportunities for a richer life.