Let’s be frank

by Kristin on June 3, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by Boris VanHoytema

As I was skimming Twitter entries Tuesday morning, this tweet (from my bud @ssrebelsam) jumped out at me:

One of the best things my mom ever did was speak to my brother and I frankly about our family’s tendency towards addiction.

It caught my attention, in part, because I’m always trying to figure out how to be a good mom. It’s one thing to be a good mom in the moment, and a different thing (sometimes entirely) to be a good mom in the long-run. I don’t think I will ever grow tired of asking adults what their parents did right.

And I think there’s another reason the tweet stood out: Frank conversations between parents and kids are far too rare.

Why we tend to skirt the issue

No one is surprised by that fact—we all intuitively understand, deep down, why we’d rather avoid conversations with our kids about things like date rape and drugs and pornography. But the very aspect that makes it so awkward also makes it so critical. These are serious matters, with potentially serious—even deadly—consequences. We can’t afford to not talk frankly to our kids about these things, yet most parents do.

Sure, many parent skim the surface, or touch on a subject in an indirect manner, heavily laced with insinuation and suggestion, hoping our kids will “get it” without us having to actually say it. We skim the surface—maybe because we think (naively) that we don’t want to put ideas into their heads, or maybe we think “my kid would never get into a scenario like that.” In some ways, we don’t want to bring these subjects up because we just don’t want to unnecessarily scare the crap out of our tender kids. In the end, I wonder how many parents actually tackle topics head-on with their kids, in a timely, measured way?

I’m certainly no expert. I think I’ve shown potential, and Jason and I have set the stage for this level of communication, but I can’t say I’ve succeeded yet. I’ve just had some good warm-up exercises. Our kids, however, are just reaching that age where the rubber meets the road—we’ll have to show our stuff.

The saddest of endings

And now I’m determined to show our parenting stuff right—hard core. I was devastated to find out that it was, indeed, a life-or-death situation that inspired @ssrebelsam’s tweet. She had just visited the blog “mamapundit” and learned about the death of the author’s teenage son, Henry. He had tried marijuana at 14, and the experiment gradually developed into a hard street drug habit, months in rehab, and then, in late April, an overdose and drug-related beating that eventually resulted in his death.

A May 3 article in The New York Times explains Katie Granju’s decision to no longer keep her son’s struggles a secret from her readers:

Sunday morning [Granju] broke her years of silence because that silence wasn’t helping (and might well have been enabling) her son; and because telling his story just might save another teenager from repeating it.

Honoring Katie and Henry

From everything I’ve read on her blog, what Katie wants now, more than anything, is for her story to make a difference in the lives of other parents and kids. That’s why I’m writing about this here, and rethinking the importance of how Jason and I will talk to our kids about the most uncomfortable topics. I hope all parents and people who are helping raise kids will do the same.

Did your parents do a particularly good (or bad) job talking to you about tough things? Have you had success at talking to your kids in a way that seemed to get to the heart of the matter?

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  • http://www.chambanamoms.com/2010/03/10/take-another-step-toward-lowering-your-grocery-bill/ Laura

    I still have very young kids, but recently we’ve had a lot of deaths in our family. While it’s easy to talk euphemistically about death, it’s hard to deal with it head on. We’ve tried to be frank, even when it hurts our grown-up hearts. It’s probably harder on us than it is our 4yo. I hope we can be that frank when the time comes to discuss the other hard lessons of life.

  • Todd S.

    My kids are 5 & 3, so they are a bit young for some of the topics you mention here, but we’ve talked very frankly with them re: death when they’ve asked about it. My mother passed away when my oldest was 4 months old and I’ve made a point of talking about my memories of her. In this context we’ve had discussions about why she was sick, what happens after you die etc. They’ve both responded very maturely to this and I plan to approach other topics similarly. Great entry.

    Thanks,

    Todd

  • sarah louise

    my parents DID NOT talk to me about hard issues. My mom’s main thing was “make sure you marry a Christian.” Which as a 17 year old, that made me see her as an “old fogey” and made it easier for me to date my disaster of a first boyfriend. As a 38 year old woman, I can see why she didn’t, she had her own issues. Fortunately, I knew I needed help, so I told my mom I needed to see our counselor about college choices. (I just needed a grown-up to talk to about s-e-x.) Over the years, I have found a lot of wise (and unwise) adults to talk with. I’m still learning.

  • http://www.cheapisexpensive.net Erin

    One of the greatest gifts my dad has given me has been his willingness and insistence on being completely frank at all times. I could never hide anything from him, and I was never left wondering what he was thinking. It wasn’t always comfortable, but he always always meant well, and I really admire him for it. I’m sure it’s helped me grow into a smarter and more composed kind of a gal.

  • http://oralhygienequeen.blogspot.com/ E.

    My dad and mom both talked to me (separately, 2 homes) about hard things, and I do think it helped equip me to make good decisions. My oldest is seven now, and I’m bracing myself to have some of those same conversations. I’m not sure I’ll always do it in just the way my parents did (and of course issues they never had to deal with will come up – e.g. internet), but I’m glad to have some kind of model.

  • Pingback: A Blog Memory Album of Henry

  • http://www.thiswomanswork.com Dawn

    Addiction runs through my family tree like crazy and it’s the reason I never tried cocaine even though I briefly dated a guy who was a fairly heavy user. (I tried other drugs but I was scared of trying anything known to be addictive.) And I’ve given the same talk to my son. My husband is 20 years sober this fall so his experiences, too, have informed our discussions. But Katie’s tragedy has given us a lot more to talk about especially since learning that his associates inaction likely made his death inevitable.

  • Jennifer

    My family struggled very poorly with my father’s alcoholism. We did not talk about it. We talked, and fought about everything else. I am determined not to let that happen in my family. My dad’s been sober for over 20 years and I am exceedingly proud of him. Until recently, I have been unable to even write about the pain and hurt my family endured. I urge parents to be as honest as possible about everything. You don’t have be garish or gross or crass. Just be honest. If my parents had talked sooner, who’s to say what could have happened.

  • http://www.napkindad.com The Napkin Dad

    I was raised in the 60s and 70s when parents were often changing as much, if not more, than the children. What they were raised with was not what they wanted to teach their children. As a result the conversations were them trying to convince themselves of a new approach or a new attitude as much as it was them trying to explain things to others under their guidance.

    I worked hard as a parent to explain things as best I could. I didn’t shy away from topics but I didn’t harangue them with rules and questions either. In my experience conversations are most successful when the child believes the parent will not judge, but just explain. The problem is most parents start to question and probe and the child gets into the mindset of trying to avoid that. They shut down and don’t want to share or listen as a result.

    In the end I felt that the best way to proceed was to talk to them in such a way that they would be persuaded it was in THEIR best interest, not mine, to stay away from serious drugs, unsafe sex and other dangerous activities. I gave them good solid reasons why it would hurt them, not me. I made sure I was saying things not because of my embarassment or social status worries but because I was being a helper in their growth and progress in life. That was what was important, not what other parents thought of me or my family.

    I also was adamant that style would not get in the way of substance. I was not going to ruin our communication over dreadlocks or purple hair or clothing styles not to my liking. I let them experiment and told them I would only put the hammer down in regards to style if I thought it was adversely affecting their character, otherwise they were free to be and do what they wanted with their personal style.

  • Kirstin

    A wonderful and timely post.

    Even when parents don’t talk about things, they still communicate about them, but the message they deliver is that the “hard” topics are vast and scary and beyond one’s power to control or even handle. My mother did a lousy job of talking to me about sex, mostly because she was deeply conflicted about her own sexuality–but she did try. I would have benefited from a mother who could have been more comfortable around the subject, but the fact that she tried to be open to my questions and concerns (even though it was awkward for her) made a difference.

    I feel pretty comfortable talking about the big issues like sexuality and death with my girls; we haven’t said a lot about drugs and drinking yet,but I think I can cope there. The one that has me flummoxed is weight/health/body-image issues. We’re a family of sedentary habits that tends towards obesity, and I find it really hard to address the real health issues in play without risking counterproductive and harmful weight obsession.

  • Loretta Sweat

    “It caught my attention, in part, because I’m always trying to figure out how to be a good mom. It’s one thing to be a good mom in the moment, and a different thing (sometimes entirely) to be a good mom in the long-run. I davon’t think I will ever grow tired of asking adults what their parents did right.” I love it. This speaks to my momma heart. Exactly my mental dialog, much of the time. Thank u some much, for sharing what you do. I wish I had time to write, to share more, to be able to be quiet enough to organize my thoughts enough to do both… Until then, I read, and your blog is so wonderful!

  • Dawn

    My parents only skimmed the surface of the tough topics and my Mom, Sister and I just had a conversation about this very subject this past Sunday. My sister was pregnant at 18, and I think my parents wish they would have talked more about the subject. I am trying to learn from the lack of communication that was in my house growing up and be sure to talk frankly with my son, who is 6. I have never tried to skirt the truth with him even though he is young. I just use my best judgement to give the age appropriate information. This post is a great reminder that it is our job as parents to guide our children with the open and frank conversations. It shouldn’t be an embarassing issue.

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve

    The Napkin Dad is right on–my boyfriend and I experienced such diverse parenting styles, and the one thing we can say for sure is that the least effective thing that parents can do is use open conversations as an opportunity to probe/question/get information. That being said, how can you not want to know what your kids are doing, and if they’re involved in something dangerous? If/when I have my own children, I’m sure that will be my paramount struggle–not letting my desire to protect them turn into a desire to control them.

    I’ve been following the Henry Granju story pretty closely, and it’s so clear that his mother feels that she made a mistake in not handling Henry’s marijuana experimentation differently. My heart breaks over this because she seems to have handled the situation beautifully. I have no doubt that if she had laid the smackdown on Henry for tearfully volunteering his experience to her, that he would have become more withdrawn and secretive, and less trusting of her in his life. There also seems to be an assumption that marijuana is unequivocally a gateway to hard drugs, or that it’s more harmful than alcohol, which is just the untrue product of our current social taboos. I can’t help but feel that Henry may have been born with something of the addict in him. That was his battle to fight. His mother could not have fought it for him. The fact that she feels that she may have been able to if she had done things differently is the ultimate tragedy here.

    I think it’s fantastic that you’re so curious about what adults say about how they were parented. If you’d like my boiled-down input, here it is: each child is a unique individual. Each child comes to this world as his or her own person. There will always be parts of your child that you cannot reach, influence, protect, or control. That is the beautiful and wonderful mystery of life, and also the heartbreak of it. The ultimate gift you can give a child is your respect and confidence that they are who they should be, that you will not try to change who they are or project your identity onto them, and even with all this, that you will be there when they want to lean on you, and when they do not want to, you will let them stand on their own.

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    I’ve always been naturally curious and naturally pretty perceptive, so I picked up on a lot of the things going on with my older brothers and sisters before my parents might have wanted me to. But they each had different reactions: my dad tended to not tell me things or talk to me, while my mom (a nurse) went for the scientific, as unemotional as possible route. Neither really worked for me. It wasn’t until I started asking direct questions about specific situations that we started having better conversations.

    I think it’s important for parents to find a way to talk to their kids in a way that best approaches that specific child. What works for child A won’t necessarily work for child B. And ask them if they have questions first. My impression is that parents sometimes don’t know how much to say. If you ask your child what questions he/she has, that’s a way to know what they want or need to know.

  • http://salvagedfaith.blogspot.com Katie Z.

    I’m still imagining what it might like to be a mom, but I do have experience as a daughter. I think one of the best ways that my parents communicated with me was through writing letters. We are not very good talkers and I think some of the extreme awkwardness of these conversations is hard to get past. However, there were two letters that my parents wrote me at some critical points of my life that are still exceptionally meaningful to me. They said what they needed to without judgment. They were able to express all of those hard things in writing and not fumbling out words.

    There are many other conversations that we didn’t have… ones that were probably just as important… but the fact that I knew they cared about my well-being and safety through those first two has shaped the decisions I have made about other issues. I knew what they would say, even if they didn’t actually come out and say it.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Laura, death is definitely one of the first difficult topics most parents have to discuss with their kids. Although the circumstances are very sad, it’s good that you’ve had a chance to broach this with your daughter—I’m sure it will prepare all of you for the difficult discussions to come.

    Todd, I think I can say “ditto” to the response I just gave Laura! It sounds like you are on the right path. Thanks for stopping by my blog and sharing your thoughts.

    sarah louise, yeah, that “marry a Christian” advice leaves a lot of gaping holes. (For example, I married a Christian and then got divorced—our beliefs did not automatically save us from that hardship.) Anyway, good for you for seeking answers when you were young, and for being the sort of adult who knows there’s always more to learn. I love that about you!

    Erin, this is a powerful parenting example: “…I was never left wondering what he was thinking.” I think as parents—actually as human beings—we’re always hoping people will read much more between the lines than they do (or at least than we’re capable of doing with any accuracy). We all need to be more straightforward with everyone in our lives.

    E, my kids have two sets of parents, too. In some moments I worry about consistency, but because I trust their dad and stepmom completely, I mostly feel like my girls have an even better chance of getting the full story, with all the permeations. I’m so glad that’s how it happened for you.

    Dawn, it sounds like you were able to take a lot of basic information and knowledge and put it to good use, both in your youth and as a parent. Your comment also reminds us how important it is to share our stories. We don’t always learn some big truth right off the bat, but many stories, like Katie’s, spark really important conversations.

  • Diane

    Oh no, my British parents daren’t talk of anything touchy… so I was determined to bare it all with my kids. I was mindful of age appropriateness but touched on all the life lessons including date rape with my highschool daughter (these topics werent off the table for my son either) …however sometimes there are circumstances beyond our control, beyond what we teach, and the horrible happens anyway. I still agree with open conversations, but in the aftermath of things that should have never happened to our daughter, I place emphasis on the strong family bond/connection and values which are getting us all through, and leading her to a place of healing.

    That and all the Dr appointments, specialized therapists, treatments and supplements required to help her adjust. My point in adding this last statement is to say – it is important to accept help from outside, and seek measures beyond what you may normaly do, if you are not facing a crisis.

    Because this may also help, while I felt justified in bieng so open with my kids, I think I said too much in terms of how/what I think about situations – which added to the guilt my daughter faced in terms of she felt she knew how I would act – and being a teen assumed much worse… so in general terms of how ‘The Napkin Dad’ puts it: Lay it out there, but with out the personal judgements.

  • http://www.sundayschoolrebel.typepad.com Sam

    I’m so honored to have one little tweet inspire this post! But it’s SO true. I am totally amazed that my mother – who is an awesome mother, even now, to my 31-year-old self – knew how important it was to tell us THE TRUTH. She was raised in an alcoholic family, one full of secrets. I swear she’s never gone to Al-anon or anything, but she definitely lives by that saying “Secrets make you sick.” Even though she could have given us the line, “Using drugs is a sin,” and left it at that, she didn’t. She carefully pointed out everyone in our family line who had addiction problems (on BOTH sides, but not in an ugly, judgemental way). She told us, “You have to be careful. I’m not telling you to never take a drink, but you have to be aware that you could one of those people who can’t control your drinking.” And the same thing went for drugs, of course. And I remember this conversation happening many times over – I’m sure it came up for different reasons. So it was her voice I heard in my head in college, when there was a period where I was drinking a lot, maybe too much, and I thought, “Maybe I need a break.”

    Now, I only have a 2 year old, but I’m already thinking about how to talk to my son about this – especially as I married a man whose parents were both addicts. I even hope his grandfather will be frank and upfront with him about his own personal losses (losing a license, custody of his children) and the cost of addiction.

    I really like the idea of writing letters. I think that’s a great way to communicate if things feel a little too weird face-to-face.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Jennifer, I’m so glad you’re processing and writing about all of this now—it’s going to do you and your family good, and it also has the potential of helping many others. Keep using that gift you’ve been given.

    The Napkin Dad, what you’ve written really resonates with me. It sounds just like the approach my husband and I believe in, but you’ve articulated it so well and filled in some important, subtle details. This really struck me: “I didn’t shy away from topics but I didn’t harangue them with rules and questions either.” As did this: “In the end I felt that the best way to proceed was to talk to them in such a way that they would be persuaded it was in THEIR best interest, not mine, to stay away from serious drugs….” Thanks for stopping by to share your insight.

    Kirstin, you’ve also articulated something I really believe is true: “Even when parents don’t talk about things, they still communicate about them, but the message they deliver is that the ‘hard’ topics are vast and scary and beyond one’s power to control or even handle.” Thanks for bringing up the particular issues you struggle with in your family, too. We need to remember that drugs, alcohol and sex are not the only issues we should be thinking about.

    Loretta, I’m glad I spoke to your momma heart. :) Thanks for letting me know. (You also helped me catch a typo I made in the post—thanks!)

    Dawn, it’s interesting that you bring up the issue of your sister’s pregnancy. Just recently, a friend of mine was telling me about his sister, who also got pregnant at about that age and also wishes, to this day, that her parents had been more forthright with her about sex. At some point, as adults, we need to start taking responsibility for our own choices and lives, and not blame our parents for everything, but it IS a great reminder to those of us with young kids: We will probably never regret giving our kids lots of good information, but we might regret not giving them enough.

  • http://www.napkindad.com The Napkin Dad

    The reason I am called the napkin dad is because of one of the main ways I communicated with my daughters during their teenage years. Being an artist I would draw on the napkins I put in the lunches I made for them. I would find a quote and then illustrate it in some way. Sometimes serious ideas, sometimes just funny, but always with an ear and heart for what they might gain. One of the best things about it was finding out that the rest of the kids at the lunch table would love the napkins just as much and they would pass it around, talking about the idea it put forth. It was a great way to give a germ of something but not be there to try to control all that was said and thought by the kids.

    So, I suggest that while letters are good, they can be ponderous or boring for kids at times. Shorter notes or other methods can do that same thing but in smaller bites. Creativity in communicating is the key.

  • jzzy55

    People certainly vary regarding talking about touchy subjects. To me anyway. I grew up in a frank and open family. Very little was taboo if asked about in a sincere way. I asked my father at age 10, “What do homosexual men do, exactly?”. This was in the mid-60s. He explained briefly (I don’t remember what he said) and that was that. I was reading Catcher in the Rye and had gotten to the part about the English teacher making a pass at Holden Caulfield. End of topic for years.
    When there was a spate of statistically anomalous parental deaths in my son’s grade in elementary school over the course of a few years, I learned that some parents had lied to their children about the circumstances of these deaths. We always told our son the truth — that someone had cancer, a drug problem, had taken her own life. We didn’t go into details but we stuck to the very plain facts. As a result when my son and another boy had an argument about whether or not a parent had died of an illness or because of suicide, I was really taken aback. Why lie? The kids were in the upper elementary grades by this point.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Genevieve, your take on Katie’s parenting approach and our society’s confused understanding of issues surrounding marijuana seems to be well-reasoned. I don’t have all the information and research I would need if I wanted to really dig into these issues, but my gut tells me you’re right. Smackdowns aren’t going to have the desired effect on most people. Thanks also for this beautiful bit of wisdom: “The ultimate gift you can give a child is your respect and confidence that they are who they should be…that you will be there when they want to lean on you, and when they do not want to, you will let them stand on their own.” (Unfortunately, though, kids—people—often don’t know what they want.)

    Meredith, great point—each kid is different and needs a different approach. Jason and I spend a lot of time talking about how our kids need love expressed in different ways and discipline delivered in different ways. I don’t think we’ll be able to set in place a strategy with our oldest daughter and then follow suit with the next two. It doesn’t work like that.

    Katie Z, I really like the letter-writing idea, a lot. It fits who I am (someone who communicates more thoughtfully through writing) and it would have fit the kind of kid I was—I think I would have responded well to bits of helpful information that didn’t require an immediate response. This is powerful: “…the fact that I knew they cared about my well-being and safety through those first two has shaped the decisions I have made about other issues.”

    Diane, thank you for sharing some of your difficult experience, and what has helped see you through it: “I place emphasis on the strong family bond/connection…” and “it is important to accept help from outside….” I guess the reality is that sometimes bad things happen, no matter how many conversations and precautions you take, no matter how hard you try to be the best parent you can be. In those instances, you need to be strong, have support, and move forward without the guilt. Peace.

  • http://themoderngal.blogspot.com The Modern Gal

    I know Katie, she lives around the corner from me (the blogworld can be so small!!). It’s been so incredibly hard to watch her and her family go through this (and can you imagine, she’s incredibly pregnant right now — the range of emotion is mindboggling). But, thanks to her brave, brave words, I’ve taken a very clear message of the importance of talking to my future children about drugs and addiction. Her words have also had a tremendous impact on our local community, and I think (hope) it also leads to changes in the way our local authorities treat certain crimes (they’ve largely ignored the crimes behind Henry’s death). I truly believe Henry’s death will not be in vain.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Sam, it’s amazing what 140 characters can inspire! Thanks for sharing more about your mom’s approach to raising her kids. What a relief, in the end, for kids to know that letting go of secrets is far more important than burying them—to know that they will be loved no matter what secrets come to light. I also think it’s significant that your mom didn’t just sit you down once for a Big Conversation, but found many natural opportunities to reinforce what she wanted you to know. I think, as parents, we often focus too much on getting the info out there once and then checking that unpleasant task off our lists.

    The Napkin Dad, I’ve been wondering how you came up with your online name—thanks for sharing that part of your story and for reminding the rest of us that communication can happen in many different creative, effective ways.

    jzzy55, it’s so fascinating to hear about kids who have the level of comfort and ease with their parents that you describe. To have experienced that growing up in the 1960s must be incredibly rare. Regarding the reasons parents hide the truth about things from their kids (like suicide, etc.), I imagine we/they like to pretend that it’s all about protecting our kids from some upsetting realities, but what’s really going on is all about the adults—our own sense of discomfort and fear surrounding these topics. Maybe that’s where we need to begin working toward changes.

    The Modern Gal, yes, that’s sort of crazy that you live around the corner from Katie. You summed it up so well with this: “…the range of emotion is mindboggling.” Indeed. It’s so hard to find words for Katie in this moment, but I do believe she will continue inspiring many important words moving forward.