Setting the stage for our kids to confide in us

This post was sponsored by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility in collaboration with the Talk Early campaign, an initiative to empower parents to talk with their kids about alcohol.

My oldest is nine years old. Which seems ridiculously old at this point in our lives. Though in about six years, that sentence I just wrote will seem really, really cute. Nine! What tiny babies I had back then, I'll tell myself, attempting not to ugly cry.

His age—nine—sticks with me because of a graphic I saw from the #TalkEarly campaign. The focus was about the importance of talking with your kids about alcohol, and it compared a nine year-old's attitude with that of a 13 year-old. Those four years make a huge difference.

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All our kids, thankfully, are at the age where they want to talk to us and love to be with us. It's a time we need to remember and love because it won't last forever. (It didn't when I was a kid, that's for sure.)

Which is why we take our conversations seriously. Our oldest is at the prime age when we should be talking to him about alcohol, drinking, choices, temptation, and all the stuff he eventually WON'T want us to talk to him about. He's not dealing with those issues now, but it won't be long.

At the  #TalkEarly summit, Dr. Tony Wolf said nine years old was the time we ought to start having these kinds of conversations.

So how do Mark and I get our kids to talk—not just to listen to us, but to confide in us? How do we create a culture of conversation? Here's what I'm learning:

1. We have to earn their trust. This starts early. When one of our kids complains to us about a problem, we have to be very cautious about being critical. Let's say a kid is having a difficult relationship with another kid at school. He tells us about it, and immediately I start digging into him to figure out what he's doing to cause the problem. That's me making assumptions. That's me blaming him. When I do that today, tomorrow he'll think twice about telling me about the problem in the first place. He needs to know I'm on his team.

2. We put in the time. If we don't have shared time together, we won't have time to talk. Bedtime is a great time for this and it's one reason we have a nightly routine with each kid. We want to build in that time to be alone together, even if it means pushing bedtime back a little because they want to talk. Dinnertime is another point of the day where we share with each other, answer questions, and talk about feelings. Hiking or taking walks around the neighborhood is another good way to do it. One thing I need to get better at is scheduling this kind of time with each of my four kids. We're a big family together but not always alone together.

3. We have to listen. One of the ways we earn trust is by listening. When we think about talking with our kids, we usually think about convincing them of something or giving them a lecture. But a conversation takes two people. It's not just me talking TO Jafta, Kembe, India, or Karis. It's hard, y'all. I get things done. My tendency is to just stomp right in and offer a quick fix. But when I do that, I miss out on helping them sort through their emotions and figure out solutions on their own. One of the phrases I find myself saying all the time is "tell me more." Then I shut up.

4. We keep their secrets. Not from each other—I don't need to be keeping any of our kids' secrets from Mark—but when they tell us something personal, it's not our place to blab about it to our friends, our family, or my blog readers. (Sorry, everyone!) If one of my boys happens to share that he has a crush on a girl at school, then it is not my place to share that with anyone else. Even if I think it's the cutest thing ever. Gossip and spilled secrets ruin trust.

5. We ask questions. Mark and I are constantly asking our kids questions. About their friends. About what happened at school. About what they love, or how they feel, or what they think about something or other. Questions are what we do when we're together. We even ask questions when they are with friends, because you can learn a lot from what your kids' friends say and what your kids say when around friends. Part of our conversation culture is built around questions, and I'm hoping that by making them comfortable with questions now, we help keep the communication lines open as they grow older (and the questions become harder).

6. We encourage. When our kids do confide in us, we encourage them. We tell them how thankful we are that they felt free to share their feelings or fears with us. We want them to leave the conversation feeling relief rather than guilt. At this age, our conversations should be places where they feel comfortable.

7. We apologize when we're wrong. Parents are human and make mistakes. Eventually our kids will reach an age where we need to tell them about past mistakes we made—with alcohol, with peer pressure, etc. They aren't there yet, thank goodness. But they do need to understand that we're human. If I fly off the handle or say something I shouldn't have, I tell the kids that I'm sorry. I ask them to forgive me.

Conversation takes practice. Getting your kids to confide in you isn't just a switch that you can flip on or off, especially once they've become surly teenagers. It's a culture we are trying to build right now with our 9 year-old, and with our 7 year-olds and even with Karis. We model it for them now while hoping that, in a few years when they hate everyone and everything, they won't hate us. Because we're safe. That's why we talk early.

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This post was sponsored by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility in collaboration with the Talk Early campaign, an initiative to empower parents to talk with their kids about alcohol.

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