Here’s a little parenting tip that I learned years ago about talking to teens. At age 14, our son had very few words to share in conversation. He kept a lot inside. Then gradually things began to change. It was during our long commutes in the car to school, work, and activities while building our new home. My initial attempts to spark conversation failed because I peppered him with too many questions. He felt interrogated, and his answers were brief, usually one or two words. It was obvious that the kind of communication I wanted was more than a volley of questions and answers. So I shifted gears. I decided to share my struggles, hopes, victories and even failures—and what I was learning from them. At first I was doing most of the talking. But as I entrusted my innermost feelings into his safe-keeping—he gradually began to reciprocate. He told me about his struggles and victories, even his failures—and what he learned from them. We responded to each other with empathy and support as friends navigating a difficult world. The car is like a cocoon that can provide intimate communication. Not long after, while tucking him in bed at night, he said, “Mom, I can tell you everything.” Then he quickly qualified it. “Well, almost everything.” In the many years since that time, we have continued to share freely with each other “almost everything.” Now a father of six, our son makes a conscious effort to continue the tradition of talking openly with his children. They have learned to value conversation and unplug from electronics. Talking builds relationships. Unplug. Utilize time in the car for real communicating.
Our main role as parents is to teach our children. But how do we teach them most effectively? We know the lecture format doesn’t work very well. Our monologues are tuned out as we drone on and on. During His mortal sojourn, Jesus Christ modeled for parents, many instructive methods, such as teaching as He went—walking and talking along the way. When my children were young, we spent lots of time in the car driving to lessons, sports events, and youth activities. In an era before electronic devices, imagine this—WE TALKED! Time in the car provided opportunities to share experiences and what we learned from them. We discussed struggles and brainstormed solutions. We laughed over humorous or embarrassing moments in school. We told each other details about our day. We shared goals and dreams and anecdotes. These exchanges also happened while we worked side by side at home—washing dishes, weeding the garden, painting a room. Subtle teaching happened as we went through an ordinary day. And relationships were strengthened. Little seeds of insight and counsel slipped unperceived into fertile soil. Snatching priceless in- between moments to subtly teach values to our children can provide the seedbed of great lessons remembered and lived.
The Lord measures growth, not height. He celebrates our progress and desire to improve. We should do the same when evaluating our marriage relationship. Ask: In what ways are we getting better? My sweetheart and I have always loved each other dearly. But we weren’t at first what we have become today. We have been continually growing with stronger bonds of endearment, trust, understanding, and communication. This reminds me of hiking Mt. Timpanogos years ago. As we trudged up the steep slopes, my eyes were focused on each step. The higher we went, the more labored was my breath. Because my eyes were focused on stepping carefully along the narrow path, I didn’t enjoy the perspective of our vertical ascent. Then we stopped and turned around. We were amazed to see clouds hovering far below, with the long, winding trail disappearing underneath. Had we really come this far? We hadn’t yet reached the top, but we stopped to celebrate where we were at that moment. In our marriages, we need to occasionally stop and turn around—and view how far we have come. Ask each other: How have we grown, individually and as a couple? What wonderful traits have we discovered in each other over the years that we didn’t know at first? Take time to appreciate and celebrate where you are at this moment—this very moment!
It’s a common mistake for marriage partners to become lax in their tones of respect as familiarity sets in. Too often requests become demands, and sweet tones become sour. What happened to frequent use of “please” and “thank-you”? I agree that, “language appropriate to the stewardship of a spouse is the language of request. It is the use of words—‘if,’ ‘would,’ ‘could,’ ‘will,’ or ‘can.’ It is the language of equals. How a husband speaks to his wife and how a wife speaks to her husband reveals their true perception of their relationship” (Dr. John Lewis Lund). Here’s a little experiment. Say the words, “What can I do?” placing emphasis on a different word each time. Tone alone can completely change meaning. George Eliot described the importance of tone in this excerpt from her classic book, Middlemarch. “That little speech of four words [What can I do?]…is capable by varied vocal inflexions of expressing all stages of mind from helpless dimness to exhaustive, argumentative perception, from the completest self-devoting fellowship to the most neutral aloofness.” Isn’t that true? Familiarity should never diminish the language of respect to a spouse; rather, familiarity should increase respect in all communication and behavior.
One day my child asked, “Mommy, are you happy?” To my nod she shot back, “Then why aren’t you smiling?” Good question! Now as I get older, I’ve noticed that gravity pulls things down—all the more reason to consciously push up those facial muscles. So I’ve been trying to smile more, even when alone, like driving, walking across a parking lot, or folding clothes from the dryer. As I think pleasant thoughts, smiles come spontaneously. It’s surprising how the upward swing of my lips can actually affect my mood. And flashing a genuine smile is equally effective in brightening the mood of others. Everyone can use a smile—the nurse in the hall, clerk in a store, passerby, family, friend, or stranger. A genuine smile or kind word makes a critically needed human connection. Babies learn to smile as their first means of communication. A smile bridges language barriers. All people smile in the same language. “Be the living expression of God’s kindness—kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting” (Mother Theresa). There are countless Reasons to Rejoice every day. A smile is the inward affirmation and outward reflection of those reasons.
When someone asks, “So, what do you do?”—most people expect a one-liner that describes a line of work or passion. Such labels might be, “I teach school,” or “I run marathons,” or “I’m a doctor,” or “I’m a musician.” I like the reply that the author/poet Emma Lou Thayne offered when asked that question. She said, “I do people.” I want this to be my answer too—focusing on people—in every season of life, no matter what other titles I wear. I’m still learning and will never get it mastered, but I’ll never quit trying. Focusing on people means getting outside myself and into the hearts of others with empathy and advocacy. It’s seeking new relationships while nurturing old ones. It’s ministering in countless creative ways. Leo Tolstoy—a favorite author of mine said, “The purpose of life is simply to grow in love.” Isn’t there a distinction between falling in love and growing in love? Falling is effortless; growing takes time and effort. “The best and most clear indicator that we are progressing spiritually and coming unto Christ is the way we treat other people…Could this be because the way we treat each other is the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ?” (Marvin J. Ashton). I think the most important use of my time is to invest it in people. So next time someone asks, “What do you do?”—watch the surprised response to your answer: “I do people!”
Do you remember Helen Keller’s animated description when she first discovered the mystery of language? Hands were thrust under a water spout while the teacher spelled the word “water” into her hand. Helen said, “I felt a misty consciousness as if something forgotten…and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.” Helen’s darkness had suddenly burst into light, opening up a vast outside world that she could neither see nor hear.
I thought how similar was my awakening to the language of the Spirit—God’s communication to me through the Holy Ghost. It is a still small voice, ever so subtle. I hear this voice in the form of countless little ideas that pop into my mind—to serve, to love, to forgive. The Holy Ghost whispers reasons to rejoice every day. He speaks peace amid trial, comfort in sorrow. On occasion, the Spirit urges need for repentance. Always the Holy Ghost conveys God’s love and affirmations of my worth. Similar to Helen Keller’s awakening, this communication from God opens up a whole new world that I can neither see nor hear with physical senses. Of course, this awakening is the mere beginning of language. I’m trying to learn fluency—to recognize, interpret, and act. This living word from God “awakens my soul, gives it light, hope, joy, and sets it free.” How does the Spirit speak to you?