Adventures in Nonversation
Nonversations happen almost every day of our lives. Whether it is at work or school, on the phone or in person. We engage in these pseudo-conversations where one or more of the participants has no interest in being in the conversation at all. You know the kind that I mean.
Nonversations with our children can happen at any age. Whether it is your toddler pulling on your pant leg and you replying, "Uh huh ... uh huh. OK, sweetie." Only to finally look down and see them handing you their full diaper which they have somehow managed to pull of.
Or your school age child saying, "Mommy. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy." in the grocery store. Checking your list and coupons and giving the baby a cracker so he won't eat the cart handle, "What?!" "I want to study animals in the Amazon rainforest!"
Or our teenage child's non-responses, "How was your day?" "Uhh." "How was your test in Biology?" "Fine." "Do you have much homework?" "No."
Sometimes it can seem like when they are ready to talk, we aren't, and when we are ready, they aren't.
There is one other type of nonversation that kills communication with our children: parent centered instead of youth centered conversations.
How do these affect our relationship with our teens?
Dollahite and Thatcher, social scientists who did research with 74 highly religious families, used the term “parent centered” conversations in their research. I call them nonversations. Nonversations are lecture-style. Parents are transmitters and not receivers. They ask their children questions because they want to give them answers. They emphasize the power imbalance in the family. Parents have power and authority and teens don’t.
This is an extension of the idea that children should be seen and not heard.
We don’t usually set out to relate to our children this way. We genuinely want to have a relationship with our kids, but we are human and we love our children so much that things get confusing.
Our fear and insecurities motivate us to try to keep our teens safe. We are afraid that either they will do something to hurt themselves or someone else will do something to them.
And, we know some of those hurts leave scars. We are afraid for them now and we are afraid for their future. “What if…” begins to be our motto. And, we choose safety and security over relationship with our child.
It can sound like this, “I would rather have my child hate me because I’m overprotective, then love me and wind up in a ditch somewhere or worse yet, dead.”
That fear gives rise to a desire to control our children. Even in the highly religious families that were studied, which tend to stress hierarchical relationships based on the natural disparity of power between the child and the adult, they are still able to have youth centered conversations. So the content of the conversations, the worldview which you hold, and the guidance that you offer do not determine whether or not a conversation is youth centered or parent centered.
The tone of the conversation, the parents’ motivations, and the relational openness of the parents determine whether conversations are youth centered or parent centered nonversations.
In a culture that highly values individualism, youth centered conversations demonstrate an increased willingness to allow autonomy and freedom to initiate and fully participate in religious/spiritual conversations. This fosters spiritual growth and gives you an opportunity to shape some of the faith choices your child makes.
Find ways to listen to your child without correcting them or judging their responses. Just listen and learn and wait until they ask for your help or advice. Enjoy them and maybe dream with them about going to the Amazon rainforest. Who knows, they might end up there someday!