Have you ever suggested something you know your children should like, but the idea has been rejected? And then you realize, if you had not been the one to suggest it, your children would have been open to it? I have. Sometimes it takes me by surprise, like the time my daughter wouldn’t try my noodle kugel (the recipe basically being a sweet combination of egg noodles, eggs, butter, brown sugar—what’s not to like?). This is a wonderful trait, this desire to have the ideas first. It’s part of parenthood, and you can work with it.
Children need to lead, or at least think they are, much of the time. They are excited to share their world with us and need to feel like they are discovering and initiating. (Note—this doesn’t mean using what’s known as pop “reverse psychology”—we never want to set up the expectation that our children want to do the opposite, even if we find that happening a lot.)
Introducing things subtly is important. We want our children to have their own opinions, not be saddled with ours. We want to model our values so our kids can take them on, if they choose, because they believe in them.
So what does this look like in family life?
Food… Serving different kinds of food, at meals or for snacks, making foods accessible, with no judgment. Eat lots of different foods in front your child — often just eating a food yourself will make some children curious to try. Not even a lot of talk. More like: “Broccoli? Yes, would you like some?”
Books… Little kids are excited by picture books and connecting with you over your favorite ones. Talk about picture books is usually fun. Once your children are starting to read on their own, any suggestions you make can be seen as pushy… what to do? Buy books that are just about your child’s reading level and leave them around, being as subtle (yes, that word again) as possible. You know your favorite read-to-yourself-books? The ones you can’t wait for your child to read and love? Try not to mention them specifically, by title, unless asked, until after they’ve been read. And then, start a conversation without adding your overall assessment.
Helping children navigate friendships… It’s undeniable—the first time your child comes home and tells you how another child did something mean, or hurt them, you will feel that pain intensely. After you take a moment and regroup, how you help your child move through that pain is key. Again, subtlety is a great choice. Your opinion of the situation, or what you do, doesn’t come into play. Letting your child know you heard, “Sounds like your feelings were hurt.” ; “That made you feel betrayed.” And asking questions like, “Tell me more about what happened afterwards,” ; “What words did you say?” ; “What are you thinking now?” ; “If ___ was right here, what do you want to tell them?” are all questions that help your child make her own meaning, and come to her own understandings about friendships. This learning evolves over time, so a 5 or 6 year old won’t understand the way an 8 year old will, nor will a 9 year old understand as deeply as an 11 year old. And on, and on. Learning is gradual, and we need to be able to rest at each step with our children without rushing ahead for them.
Shopping for clothes… Try not to say much; especially things like, “that’s cute” or “that reminds me of something I had when I was little.” Try to have clear ideas of what you need before you shop with older kids especially—clothes for school, or camp, or a special occasion. Trying things on at the store or at home if you’ve ordered will also do some of the work for you—kids may like something on the rack or in a photo but not on—you are walking them through the process. If, in the end, your child wants something you really have an issue with, you can still say, “I know you like that. At this point, I’m not ready for you to wear that. What’s your next choice?”
Making big plans… It’s so important to do things that align with your long-term vision for your family. Involving your children in those plans takes some finessing… you don’t want to ask them for their opinion and ignore it, but you might not always want to do or be able to afford things they suggest. So set up some clear parameters, both for decision-making and options. What helps? Having set times to make plans (weekly family meeting, yearly family calendar meeting planning for trips) and having guidelines, “Sunday afternoon we are going to go somewhere as a family. It has to be free or cost less than $20. Let’s make a big list—where do you want to go?” Your kids get to consider time it takes to get someplace, and they have opportunities to be creative and involved.
Political opinions… when you have conversations and use specific examples about what you believe, you give children a train of thought. If you are attending a demonstration or talking about a candidate you like, say why, and give an example. “We feel like it’s important to support _____ because she is working to make more parks and green spaces in our neighborhood.” Or “If _____ is elected, we hope she sticks to his promises and works to use taxes to pay for improvements in education.”