I have a lot of hopes for my children - long lives, healthy friendships, meaningful work, partners who make them belly laugh - but one hope rises above all others: I hope they always, always talk to me.
About scary stuff, embarrassing stuff, wonderful stuff, stuff they're ashamed about, stuff they're proud of, you name it. Lately I've been deploying a secret device to keep them talking: I pretend I don't know anything. It's surprisingly easy.
My son, as I've mentioned, likes to talk about football. I am slowly picking up the nuances of the game by watching him play flag football, sitting with him on the couch on Sundays, offering an enthusiastic "Yes!" whenever he says, "Mum. Do you have 8 minutes and 39 seconds?" (Which means I'm about to see some football highlights on YouTube.)
Still, there's a lot I don't know. On Monday morning's commute to school, after he finished explaining the various theories about why Eddy Pineiro's game-winning kick went in (something about the Denver altitude helping the ball fly farther), he set his sights on February.
"Mum," he said. "Who do you think's going to the Super Bowl."
"Cowboys/Bears," I tried.
"Can't happen. Same conference."
"Can't happen. Same conference."
"That can happen. What's the final score."
OK, in this instance there was no actual pretending involved. I truly don't know who's eligible to play whom in a Super Bowl. I just know my son loves the Cowboys and I went from there.
But because I have gotten so good at admitting my own ignorance, I am learning how much kids really enjoy knowing more than their parents on any given topic.
All I have to do is listen and nod and throw in the occasional, "No way! That's crazy!" or, "Seriously? That's so interesting!" or, "Wow! I had no idea!" (even when I actually had a vague idea) and they talk and talk and talk.
This works for football. This works for celebrity trends. This works for social media. This works for school subjects.
The other night we got on the topic of reusable water bottles, which led us to the price of Hydro Flask water bottles, which led to my kids explaining to me about VSCO girls.
VSCO girl, if you haven't heard, is a term for tween/teen girls who post photos of themselves wearing Birkenstocks and shell necklaces and drinking out of Hydro Flasks. The photos are edited on the VSCO app, hence the name. VSCO (pronounced vis-co) girls also, I'm told, say "sksksk" and "oop." ("Wait, what's 'oop'? Use it in a sentence." That's my line.)
The key, I'm finding, is to be endlessly fascinated and not at all judgmental or scoldy. You can ask leading questions ("So is it an insult?"), but if you register an actual opinion ("That sounds like an insult"), you risk grinding the conversation to an immediate halt.
Better, I'm finding, to collect the information bit by bit, piece by piece, and store it away for longer conversations later. Better to find out what's swirling around in their worlds, occupying their time and attention, sending them messages about who to be and how to act.
Better, I'm finding, to mostly listen. To have most of my words be questions. To be a student in their master class: "Childhood 101: It's Nothing Like Yours Was."
This way, I'm hoping, I keep learning.
This way, I'm hoping, I have a better chance of helping them figure out who to be and how to act.
And this way, I'm hoping, they keep coming back to talk to me.