I had heard that being curious was a great way to invite conversation with a child. But my children were teens at this point; it just wasn’t going to go over well. I could not imagine myself saying “I’m curious, tell me about…” to one of my teenage (did I mention teenage?) girls without prompting an exasperated eye roll and some sort of ‘don’t try to be a therapist’ snarky retort.
The youngest daughter had been away for four days on a chorus spring break trip to somewhere fun. We all knew she was having fun because of course the fun gets posted every hour on social media. The second daughter had been home, stewing that she wasn’t off doing something fun. So, when I came home with Sophie (young one, having fun) after picking her up, I wasn’t surprised that her sister Catalina was cold towards her – but I was irritated. I mean, really, why can’t she be nice to her sister who has been away for four days? Is that too much to ask? And so when Sophie left the room, and Catalina launched into complaints of Sophie posting too much on social media and why didn’t I do something about it and why was she allowed to go on an expensive trip anyway, I was very ready to a) defend Sophie b) tell Catalina that it wasn’t really her business c) shut Catalina down because it’s not comfortable to listen to one teen complain about the other teen…and on and on. But for some reason, the ‘I’m Curious’ option popped into my brain. I found myself giving it a try. “So, I’m curious, Catalina, you seem so angry at Sophie.” It sounded awful. It felt funny rolling off my tongue. It felt so awkward.
You know where this is going. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Catalina started talking, and kept talking, and she talked for 15 minutes. Ok, maybe 10, but it felt like fifteen. She began with the surface stuff that I mentioned above and weaved a path all the way to her feelings of hurt that she didn’t have as many good friends and sadness that she didn’t really have the fun opportunities that her sisters did. I would never have shared Catalina’s vulnerable expression of that painful ache that she was experiencing in that particular moment had I not opened up to hear her. Bonding and connection is simply the culmination of interactions like this that build the relationship and increase the level of trust so that, hopefully, they’ll reach out again. How easy it would have been to miss that opportunity.
How humans build connections with each other, how we deepen them, and how we repair them when they break can be as simple as a warm smile, a particularly empathetic moment, or just a moment of sitting and listening. The process is often 'felt' more than understood. John Gottman, who wrote Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child and has done tons of research on family dynamics, basically says that the building blocks of connection are the small overtures we make to each other every day, and the way our loved ones respond. Gottman calls these “bids,” as in “bids for attention.”
Daring to use “I’m curious” was a response to Catalina’s veiled bid. The good news is that it is simpler than you might imagine with kids. If we respond with compassion to our child’s frustration or anger, we build trust and strengthen the relationship. If we respond with something other than compassion, our child feels less safe with us and adds a brick to his defensive wall. And, of course, this goes both ways. If we ask our middle schooler about the upcoming school dance and receive an engaged response, we might venture further and ask whether she’s nervous. If, on the other hand, her response is surly—which means she’s already defensive— most of us will back off.
I am begging you to start to practice a few habits today which will accumulate over time to a deep connection with your children. Your child will feel better and so will you. Try ‘I’m curious’ – if I can do it, so can you!