As a divorced parent, every other weekend becomes a big production. On the Thursday before D-Day, I get stuff ready for my daughter. This includes trying to get her room ready, picking up my room, cleaning up the restroom, making plans for the weekend, checking all my finances, making last minute arrangements for any particular event, and hoping to do this while not taxing myself so badly that by the time I pick her up she asks me whether or not I was a Walking Dead extra. (I’m not but it would be cool. Hmmm… maybe I should consider the sleep deprivation a blessing.) All of this effort is in the hopes of producing one goal with my daughter: engagement.
What do I mean by engagement? Engagement means that I have the kind of dialogue with my daughter which we both leave feeling like we have a better understanding of each other. But as a single dad, I know I have to fight my emotions about this so often that I am worried that my emotional dike may burst. I can try and plug up all the leaks but it won’t last forever. I don’t know about other divorced parents, but when I get my daughter on Friday afternoon, trying to talk to her is like death by a thousand paper cuts. Despite my hoping that the next sentence will put me out of my misery, I know it won’t.
Let me take a step back here and say, should my daughter ever be reading this, or your kids are reading this over your shoulder wondering who this bad dad is who cannot abide talking to his child, I absolutely love talking to my daughter. But talking to your kids can sometimes feel like that awful date you went on with the high school cheerleader or the college quarterback. You were so excited beforehand, and they looked amazing, but when you started to talk to them you realized that they had the personality of a piece of paper. As a divorced parents you are super excited to be able to talk to your kids when you get them. But when your kids start replying back to you as if someone held a gun to their heads threatening them if they should ever answer in more than one word, all the excitement is drained from your enthusiasm balloon.
The typical conversation goes like this: “What did you do this last week? Stuff. What kind of stuff did you do? Stuffy stuff. What did you do at school today? Stuff. What kind of stuff? School stuff? What did you have for lunch? Food. What kind of food? Foody food. Did you like your lunch? Eh.”
It gets so bad that you decide to turn on the car radio. It’s a reprieve from having to say anything. You might have had tons of things to say, but now you don’t know what to say. And then the things you need to say, always end up feeling bad. Because the important things you have to say always have consequences or negative overtones. You begin to look around you and you feel claustrophobic. The car never felt that small before, but now you want to get out. My weekend with my daughter was no different.
If you were to read the last few paragraphs, you might assume that I had the worst weekend ever. But the truth is, the weekend was a success for the most part. How can I possibly say this? Because I have determined ways to be able to engage with my child, even when things to be going south quickly. And I am here to share them with you so that you don’t feel like you are the claustrophobic parents that consider nails on the chalkboard as sweet music when compared to the torture of talking to your child. No one wants to feel like this.
How did I make my weekend a success? By following ten rules and guidelines that enable me to break through the conversation stonewall and have some deep conversation that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. It doesn’t matter whether you are a single parent, a divorced parent, or a happily married parent, these guidelines work. And now I present them here to you.
10 Do’s and Don’ts to Increase Engagement with Your Child
10) Do something you are both unfamiliar with –
I know that we get into ruts. We often do the same things over and over because we feel comfortable with them. But we should never be comfortable that we stopped talking to our child. So if our rut has produced no conversation, change that up. Play a board game, throw water balloons at each other, put together a puzzle, or climb Mount Everest. As long as you change things up, you will change how you communicate. It happens naturally. And if you have lost the ability to talk to one another, that’s a good thing. Be a rebel. Be a change agent. Doing something different may be scary, but at least you won’t be considered insane… hopefully.
9) Do practice your listening skills –
It’s so easy to forget that you need to listen to your child in order to really engage with them. I think for many people it gets so easy to fixate on themselves when they are talking. We want to communicate things to our children, but we forget that they want to communicate things to us. It may not be on the level of Albert Einstein, but I guarantee it’s a lot deeper than you give them credit for.
Sometimes I think kids are far better philosophers and observers than we are because they aren’t jaded by years of “experience.” In order to impart our wisdom, we need to listen to theirs. We would be hurt if we weren’t listened to. And they feel the same way. So take the time to practice your listening skills every day. And when you have your kids, apply those listening skills to them. You will have richer conversations that way.
8) Do a family chore that everyone can participate in –
As parents, and especially as single parents, we feel on the go all the time. We can run ourselves to exhaustion. So be inventive and find ways to engage your kids with things you have to do. Become your own Mary Poppins. Whether this means doing dishes, mopping the floor, or washing the car, have the family get together to do stuff you need to do. You may have to find inventive ways to make things fun. Although, with washing a car on a hot summer day, who doesn’t like to get wet? Being active and doing things in cooperation encourages conversation. You will find them spilling the beans on so many different things, you will not believe it.
7) Do go out to eat –
I know it can be a luxury at times. And so it’s not something that you can do all of the time. But when you get the opportunity to, go somewhere to get some good food that you haven’t tried before. Or food that you have tried before. Food seems to get people to open up. And when you are doing all the cooking at home, sometimes you are too beat to think or carry on a good conversation with your kids. Going out allows you to not have the stress and strain of cooking and encourages dialogue. In addition, it gives you a chance to teach your kids to practice good table manners. Which means preferably they speak once they have finished chewing their food.
6) Take a road trip . . . minus the radio –
I know we all like to think we are comfortable with silence. But truthfully we are not. When things are silent we get on edge. Just think of every parent who reacts when they aren’t hearing their children aren’t screaming at each other. Every good parent knows that the biggest danger happens when you stop hearing them, not when you are hearing them. So going on a road trip, aside from being a grand adventure and something completely different, makes it so you have to talk to this other person . . . unless you turn on the radio.
The radio, the CD player, your iPhone, will interfere with your ability to speak to one another. Having a long road trip with silence will encourage dialog. Just one addendum though. Don’t be stingy and never play the radio, especially on a really long trip. We all need a break for a little while. And when you are in a car for 7 hours at a clip, it’s even more important to avoid going crazy. So playing the radio is ok. But make sure that you go an hour every now and again with nothing but voices in the car. It will increase interaction.
5) Do take them to amusement parks/carnivals/festivals –
Aside from a good bit of culture you get, which is always important, you find yourself in a lot of lines. I know that with the advent of the internet, fast passes, and annual passes that many of you have become line snobs. I am probably more of a line snob than I would like to admit. But lines mean lots of time where nothing is going on and you can have the chance to talk. Make an agreement not to take out the cell phone while you are in line unless playing an interactive game like Heads Up.
I know as parents with TV and the internet it becomes easy to distract our kids with something. But how does that help them? And it certainly limits our ability to communicate with them. So don’t allow them to be distracted in line. Instead, talk to your child during the lines at the amusement park. You will be glad you did.
4) Take your kids to cultural building events or museums –
I know from personal experience that talking to my daughter about what’s going on at school can be like pulling teeth. She will explain in broad explanations but you cannot help your child with those. I did math does not help you. And upon further questioning being told that they are doing mathy math doesn’t help either. You need specifics. By going to educational places you can get your child to make connections to things they are doing in school. Those connections will encourage your kids to discuss school subjects more. And it may just encourage them to bring up even further issues at school.
A talk about Darwin in a natural history museum may lead to a discussion of Mendelian genetics. And a discussion about your weight on the planets leads to a discussion of mathematics and gravity. So go to these amazing places can encourage you to have discussions you never had before. And it will allow you to assist them in school in ways you wouldn’t have considered before.
3) Go on a long hike together –
Preferably you would do this one on one. There are too many variables the more kids you might bring into the equation. But getting that one on one time while you are out exercising is a great thing. Your endorphins are raised and you feel good. People talk better and more freely the better that they feel. It’s like the person at the bar who gets more talkative after one drink. You may not have an alcohol high. But you do have an endorphin high. Consider doing something as easy and cost effective as that. And before you know it, you will not be able to get your child to be quiet. And you really wouldn’t want to. Plus you get some great exercise and some amazing views as well. Nothing wrong with that.
2) Do find ways to avoid using your electronic devices –
This would seem self-evident. Anything that distracts you from your child would be a bad thing. But how many of you have been out somewhere and seen a whole group of people at a table communicating by cell phone. And what’s sad is that I would give you even odds that they are talking to someone else at the table via cell phone. This does not make it easy. I’m a blogger. Between my cell phone and my laptop, were I to have neither of them, I would feel lost.
But our kids need us to put down those tools now and again. They may be our moneymakers, but they also distract us from engaging with our kids. Maybe you can’t leave it at home while you go out someplace. But keep it away for a few hours, or even just one hour. Watch the dialogue between you and your child improve exponentially.
1) Spend some time putting your child to bed –
I remember the moment where my daughter said I could go to bed and she would go to bed and it would all be ok. I didn’t have to wait around for her to pass out in her bedroom anymore. That was an exciting moment. I cannot tell you the number of times I passed out on her bedroom floor waiting for her to sleep. On top of which, the likelihood I experienced back pain in the morning increased tenfold.
It wasn’t all positive though. Some negative things happened as well. Our night time ritual stopped. And we stopped talking. This past weekend I decided to stop just going straight to bed. I was tempted to do that and work on the blog but I figured 10 minutes at night wouldn’t hurt. You would be surprised the kinds of talks we had just because I was going to spend that extra ten minutes. I got to reveal my heart, and my daughter got to reveal hers. I may have had plenty of stuff to do, but I wouldn’t trade those extra ten minutes for anything. And hey, at least I didn’t have to pass out on the floor anymore.
Continue the Conversation
So what did you think of the list of ten things? How many of them are you already doing? How many were new to you? And what other things do you do that is not on this list? I know this list isn’t complete. And of course, each situation is different. The more children you have, the more difficult it becomes to do things. And where you might be able to talk, you might not when you have 5 other kids to deal with. I suggest taking one kid at a time. And if that doesn’t work, try to get a little alone time with them anyway. You both will be glad you di. And your relationship with your child will grow in leaps and bounds. I hope to hear back from you soon.
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Until next time, this is me signing off.
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide