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Parent-child communication runs deeper than words

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Wednesday, November 12th, 2003 — Every now and then, someone asks my husband, Pat, and me what it was like to raise four sons.

Our stock answer is: "It was like raising ponies!" The dust didn't settle for 30 years.

Our youngest son finished college last year and by now, our memories of childrearing have faded a bit--but some things have become clearer and more vivid. I know I was always trying to learn from what others were doing, so in the hope that our experiences might be helpful to someone else, I would like to recall what stands out as most important.

First, and maybe this is all that really matters: Never stop loving this child. My feeling is that if every child had at least one adult who thought she or he was the most important person in the world, that child would mature into a well-grounded adult.

Maybe it is not always the same person. Kids can break our hearts. I've thanked God for the two-parent system; you can spell each other from time to time. But if that fails, or if there is only one parent in your child's life, try to find someone else to fill this role, even if it's only temporarily. Never be afraid to get help.

I've said how love is the single most important thing in a child's life. I would add there is probably never enough love in the world to fill the child's needs, from the child's perspective. As a mother of grown children, I have visions of them on psychiatrists' couches saying, "My mother didn't love me, and that's why I do such and such ...."

At a recent lunch with friends, one woman asked another if she had ever experienced grace in her life. There was a long pause before she answered, "Not enough!" Perfect. To a large extent grace comes to us through love of other people, and there is always room for more of that.

There are a few other suggestions I would put into the mix:

1) Be a family. Make time in your life for family time, no matter what, no matter when. Children need to know there is a place they belong and can be themselves.

Let the kids help decide what you'll do, but don't be discouraged when nothing gets their approval. There were times when I think a couple of our kids would have liked to put themselves up for adoption. Their friends' families were cool and we just didn't get anything right. But we'd heard that before.

2) Share your values. Let your children know what you think about issues that matter to them. Drugs and sex might be part of this, but there are other basic issues -- like friendship and loyalty, self-respect, respect for other people, humility, competition and honesty, love of the outdoors.

Children today look out onto a world that appears to be failing in serious ways. Listen to their concerns. Be a role model -- defining what that means can help us parents get back in touch with what is most important. And our children can see us as their partners in meeting the challenges of today's changing world.

3) Don't fear mistakes. A mom asked me once how we managed to raise four boys who seemed to have stayed out of trouble. I quickly assured her that our sons were not angels! I received calls regularly from unhappy teachers. We sat through traffic court.

There were times they made us unspeakably proud, and times I thought I'd die of embarrassment because of what the neighbors knew about what our kids had been up to. But in spite of the ups and downs they landed on their feet -- and we as parents learned things in the process. We learned to pick ourselves up and move on. We learned to admit our mistakes.

We learned we needed the affection of our children just as much as they needed ours.

Parenting calls on our ability to muster well-chosen words at the appropriate moments, but it also requires us to use our instincts, to read between the lines, to hear what can't be said. Parent-child communication requires a large dose of heart.

As parents we walk a fine line between being firm and being vulnerable. It is a walk we never stop walking.