Monday, January 25, 2010

the meaning of the bird

About talking to your kids early and often? A big thank you, halleluliah and Yes Ma'am! to Juggling Jenn who posted a book review on straight talk about sex. I second everything she said. (And want to read the book).

I would like to add that a big piece of keeping the communication open with our kids is to listen without criticizing. If you hear your child repeat a bad word? Or ask one of those questions you didn't think you would hear until they were old enough to vote?

First. Check your feelings at the door.

Second. Keep your expression neutral, open and accepting.

Third. Listen. Quietly. As in, wait. Wait a little longer. Until they finish saying what they need to say. You will be amazed at how much more you hear this way. How much more your kids have heard, seen, or wondered about, when you give them free and neutral space to share.

Fourth. Ask what they think about it.

Refer back to first, second, and third.

Fifth, clear up the errors and uncertainty with as open minded a discussion as you can muster.

Because nothing shuts kids down more than a screechy "OMG! Where did you hear that? I don't ever want to hear you say that again! Is that clear, missy?"

Or a disgusted look. Or feinting. Or throwing yourself to the ground crying. Or throwing a Bible at them.

Like Jenn, whose parenting opinions I admire, we've also had a blow job conversation at the dinner table. And an anal sex conversation. And why kids use so many curse words on the school bus.

And a frank discussion of what it means to flip the bird (give the middle finger, in case you live under a rock).

Because seriously, have you ever tried to explain this doozie of a gesture before to three under-age faces filling their milk-rimmed mouths with ravioli?

On the fly?

As in you've never really thought about what it really means before?

When you're pretty sure they've seen you use this very gesture in the car?

It's not easy. And I'm not sure my husband and I did such a great job. But more important than my kids seeing their parents squirm understanding what this crude expression conveys and why their parents people unleash the bird with such frequency, we have taught them that they can get accurate information from us, delivered in a calm and sincere manner, designed to teach rather than preach.

Because this is nothing new. People have been cursing at each other and threatening each other and shocking each other with the many ways the human body can be used to dazzle and delight since the dawn of the bear skin thong.

And I hope my way of listening without reacting means I am increasing my influence rather than rendering myself the free speech censor, the disapproving prude, the wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap dispenser. Because if they get a horrified look followed by a punishing message? They're not going to talk to you about anything else they think might horrify you. Or disappoint you.

Respected experts in the field of adolescent development claim that one of the biggest reasons cited by teens for not telling their parents they are thinking about having sex, or have already had sex, is the fear they will disappoint their parents. And second is the fear that parents will punish. That they will wield their almighty social ax. As in, You won't be seeing HIM anymore! Or, Don't ask to go to her party!

So my strategy is to put on my PPF. My parental poker face: I'm not disappointed. I'm not surprised. I'm not shocked. I'm not disgusted. I'm not scared out of my ever-loving-wits.

No. It's perfectly natural for my 10 year old daughter to ask what it means when people say, F*ck you! Or why the boys on the bus shout, Suck my d*ck! Or the girls retort, Eat this!

So with my PPF in place, here is what it means. Here is why they might be saying it. Here is why they think it makes them sound like a grown up. Here is how it hides their insecurity about what it all means because they probably don't have anyone at home who explains this stuff to them in a calm and cool manner.

And finally? Thank them. Thank your kids for having the courage to ask. For being smart enough to get the truth from an adult source. For trusting you enough to talk straight to them.

Okay. Now use your napkin. Because you've got ravioli sauce on your chin.


Deb said...


Love this. I love the idea of a PFF. With my teens, I have used car rides often when I know conversations need to be promped that I think they will shy away from. It almost works like a confessional, we're both mostly looking ahead, and magically they talk because they aren't trying to either read or avoid eye contact. Of course afterwards I give big hugs and warmth and validation through loving gazes, so it's not a cold technique at all. But it is a great way to have a PFF.

Not if you get upset with revelations and drive into dumpsters, though. I'm pretty steady on the road. :)

(Thanks for the shoutout!)

phd in yogurtry said...

Deb -- Yes! Validate them and hug them. Sixth and Seventh!

Jenn@ You know... that blog? said...

Easier said than done, but I have always made a point of being very open with my daughters. I'd like to think they know they can come to me with any question, knowing they'll get a straight answer, and that I will think about it before answering them.

That doesn't mean the horrified face doesn't sometimes flash right before the PPF takes hold, but they seem to appreciate that I'm trying!

My 15 year old and I have had some real doozy conversations the last couple of years, and I know she gets a kick out of seeing how much she can say before I start squirming. And yes, the car especially seems to be the place to have these - no one to overhear, a closed space where your secrets can safely be discussed and stowed away.

Nothing more important that communicating with your kids.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

A really interesting observation I've made is that the kids whose parents use techniques like yours and mine actually wait longer to have sex than the "don't even think about it" parents' kids.

It turns out that when you listen to and talk to them, they return the favor.

Becca said...

Oy. It also helps if you watch family guy together, as it brings up so many of these topics early when they don;t know it should be embarrassing (I speak form experience)

phd in yogurtry said...

Jenn (and Deb) -- There is something about the car. The no-eye contact, the fact that they can't see your face, or not directly. And while driving, we do keep our expressions to a minimum, if you think about it. And our reactions. I can remember driving and one of my kids saying something that made me choke on my spit. I couldn't comment because I might have rammed into the guy trying to cut me off. So I do think driving is a situation where they've learned they're likely to hear less so it gives them freedom. Rambling here but you get my point.

Mrs. G. said...

Yes, I've learned to not grimace and keep it simple. My kids would groan when I tossed books at them and told them we would discuss them soon, but I always noticed that doors closed and I would hear pages rapidly turning. They still groan when I approach a subject head on. I don't care if they groan. I know they're listening. Even when they pretend they are not.

Rachel Cotterill said...

If I ever have kids, I'll have to put serious effort into this - which, given that I'm completely incapable of hiding my feelings on anything, will be interesting...

Mary said...

The main lesson I am teaching the kids about sex is that it would be really good if they can wait to do it with someone they REALLy care about..

and my kids have done a lot of swearing this summer - some I have let go because - well just because ..other times i have stomped on it because it has just been excessive ..

honesty - straight questions deserve straight answers

Kathleen Scott said...

Fabulous post!!! All of it, the sex and swearing and communication parts.

I wish this kind of communication (step by step listening) was taught in junior high school. Your kids are lucky to see it at home, they'll absorb by osmosis and never realize how they learned the skill.

MommyTime said...

This is such a great post, and I think that the principles apply to kids of every age. I had my 4 yr old come home from preschool once and tell me that another child had told a third that the third couldn't play with them because he "had brown skin." Although the top of my head nearly flew off at the notion that my preschooler was being taught racism by a buddy, I didn't let my voice betray anything. The ensuing conversation was fascinating in terms of revealing what my child really thought and what he wondered, and I was so glad that I had not reacted with a horrified look at the first, which surely would have shut him down from talking to me.

All of which is to say that I love this post and although I can imagine that it gets MUCH harder to stick to this once the conversations turn to blow jobs, I hope I will be able to do so. Thanks!

Jason, as himself said...

Splendid! And even if you do ALL of this, and you do it well, your teens will STILL find a reason to roll their eyes and say, "DAA-AAAAAAAD!"

phd in yogurtry said...

Mrs G -- I know that groan well. Sometimes it escalates to "You are SO WEIRD, Mom!" And one time I was "evil!" Which is to say almost anytime I approach them, I get the eye roll and the hand and the "Stop! Please!" Which is why I'm so protective of the window of opportunity they give me when they bring up something sex related. It gives us a starting point. And they sometimes even seem grateful rather than disgusted.

Rachel -- I've come to conclude that diaper changing and potty training is the entry level job for this PPF.

Mary -- I'm with you. And on the cursing, in my house it's okay for them to repeat what they've heard and ask about it. Or to quote someone in conversation. It's not okay for them to use it on their own or with their friends. But I can say this has rarely happened. I think I've traumatized my kids with my random expletives around the house, a technique I do NOT recommend.

So in my house, cursing is for adults. Not because we're smarter but because we're old enough to be smarter about where we use it.

Kathleen -- I wish they would have some kind of teacher facilitated support groups on communication skills. Maybe after school, voluntary attendance. I'm hoping some school somewhere in this country has something like this going on but it's probably too liability prone for the average school district.

MommyTime -- Good for you. Those horrified looks are hard to suppress. I'm not always successful, either. Sometimes one just jumps off my face and I have to do some serious backtracking.

Jason -- Yup. Here too. The dreaded double-consonant Mo-Ommm!

Grandy said...

Interesting!! It's the checking the feelings at the door I need to focus on.

I will try to listen...even when there are no words...more.

Thanks!! :)

Mone said...

Did you know there is a field guide to the Nord American Bird available? Strange =D

Reluctant Blogger said...

Oh yes, I do the unshocked thing too. I have always been very open with my children and they chatter on about all sorts. The biggest problem I have is that they then tend to chatter openly with others who see it as inappropriate. I need to work a little on that without making them feel what they are saying is wrong.

Ann's Rants said...

Great tips. I will try and remember them as my kids get older and my eyes are permanently lodged in my head.

Thanks for stopping by my blog. Congrats on the coyote..;)

Tammy said...

I applaud both you and Jenn for your great posts! When my kids would use "bad" words I'd ask them what they thought they meant (funny answers)... Then I'd tell them with they really meant. It never failed that my daughter would say "ewwwww, i'm never saying that!" To this day (she's 15) she doesn't swear and is offended when i do.

In the first grade my son came home with a whole list of words he heard on the playground requesting meanings. I gave him the meanings. He was not as grossed out as his sister and while he uses foul language he's not obnoxious about it. In fact he's a lot like me in that area!

bernthis said...

Oh how do I love this post, let me count the ways. Mine is 6.5 and I"m just waiting to get bombarded with those questions. This is great advice

Fantastic Forrest said...

Beautiful post. In Professor X's family, no one ever talked about anything ever, so that may explain his squeamishness about such parenting tasks. In my family, we talked about everything. Well, almost everything. But the point was, if we had questions, my parents weren't afraid to answer them.

It's like saying "Voldemort" - if you can talk about it and call it by its name, it loses all its power for damage.

Thanks, PhD.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Beautiful post. In Professor X's family, no one ever talked about anything ever, so that may explain his squeamishness about such parenting tasks. In my family, we talked about everything. Well, almost everything. But the point was, if we had questions, my parents weren't afraid to answer them.

It's like saying "Voldemort" - if you can talk about it and call it by its name, it loses all its power for damage.

Thanks, PhD.

apathy lounge said...

Impassive poker face. Yes. I use it frequently.

Fragrant Liar said...

Um, where can I buy this bear skin thong of which you speak?

Also, my contribution to this is that kids, once they turn teen, have an automatic and itchy trigger finger that just pops out when a camera enters their field of vision. I think it's genetic, but I'm not sure.

Jocelyn said...

That's a seriously tough bus your 10-year-old has to ride! My girl (almost 10) tells me she's learned "bad" words from the kids on the back of the bus...

and I'm with you: kids need to know what exists in the world. What I hope to be able to help them with is the code-switching part of things...that is, knowing when some topics and language are acceptable and, alternately, when they're not.

Elizabeth said...

I love this post and so appreciate everything that you said. Now I need to get busy and do some of it...

Jennifer H said...

This is such good advice. I try for this, definitely. I would so much prefer that my kids ask me than someone else. I've had to explain more than I would have anticipated by now, but I'd so much prefer that they hear those explanations from me than from someone else - or worse, no one, and they're left wondering.

dkuroiwa said...

and this is what i love about blogging with really smart moms (and dads) can learn so much. Living in a non-english speaking country is really hard because, for some of the 'really good bad words', there really isn't an equilvalent japanese one. when my 7yo asked about the f-word, i was quite shocked...but...the older one said someone heard it in a movie and was wondering, so they asked my boys (like we say it all the time or something, but....they just don't know!) The boys and i have had a lot of car conversations about good words and bad words...they also learned a few new ones this summer from their American cousins....there will be hell to pay next time i see those young men, you can bet!! :-D
Talking about sex is a little easier as the boys are very much into their bugs and are very straightforward about mating ("like people do"). I've asked other moms as to what they do here and most just let the school handle it (they have a really good program for the kids starting in the 4th grade). I looked for books, but, as my boys don't read in English yet, those wouldn't really help. I guess, we'll just cross those bridges when we come to them.
Funny thing though...a few years ago, I asked my mom when she and I were going to have "the talk"....she replied ,"when I have mine."
and that's how it was in OUR family!! :-D
So glad I now have some good examples on how to handle these situations!!!
thank you!!