- This is the first in a two-part series
- Read the second part: Sex, online safety, divorce, death: big talks with kids
There’s no way out of it. At some point in their lives, mums and dads need to fulfil one of the toughest jobs of parenting – that of having a conversation with your kids on the big, difficult topics of life.
You know the kind – the ones that make even the most well-prepared parent squirm with discomfort. The ones that range from the pitfalls of money and the perils of technology to body safety and consent. In a bid to raise them into well-adjusted, well-rounded adults, a natural instinct for parents might be to shield kids from the harsher aspects of life, but experts say that could cause more harm than good. This is especially so in today’s world, where with 24-hour news cycles and social media, it’s difficult to filter what information kids are exposed to.
Eschewing hesitancy and discomfort while keeping the lines of communication open can be daunting, but may be necessary so the world doesn’t seem a dark, confusing place to children. Fielding follow-up questions to various tricky topics can also help make kids feel that their voice is heard and their apprehensions are valid.
This week, we ask experts on how you can speak to your kids on a few sensitive subjects.
1. Curfews and consequences
Setting curfews for children, and highlighting consequences for not adhering to them, hold more value than parents know. Curfews translate to healthy boundary-setting within the home, and children need to be taught the importance of respecting rules in their homes. They will then be more inclined to respect rules laid out in other environments too.
By putting a curfew in place, you are communicating to your child that you trust them to be responsible enough to adhere to it. Furthermore, you are teaching them about accountability and how they will earn the trust of people when they honour the boundaries laid out for them.
Plus, children learn that every choice in life bears a consequence, positive or negative. For example: ‘If I choose to exceed my curfew and stay out later with my friends, I am also choosing to be grounded the next day’. They also then realise that they have the power to choose better for themselves going forward.
As children move into the phase of adolescence, they acquire the need to become more independent and naturally gravitate further towards their peer group. This may be a good time to set curfew timings.
How to start the conversation
There are a few factors to take into account when planning your approach:
• When: have the conversation when both parent and child have sufficient time available. Difficult conversations should never feel rushed. Factor in time for your child to ask questions too.
• Where: make sure that the conversation takes place in a space where you are unlikely to be interrupted by someone. Go for a walk together; sit in your child’s room; or go on a long drive somewhere.
• Stance: adopt a stance of openness and curiosity when speaking with your child. Be open to hearing their points of view too.
• Face-to-face: make sure to have the conversation in person – avoid getting into a back and forth over WhatsApp or Messenger. This will prevent any miscommunication from occurring as it is easier to pick up on tone and genuineness when not done digitally.
• Start out positive: when speaking with your child, point out that they are entering a phase where they require more independence and that you would like to give them more freedom. And that however, with freedom comes responsibility.
Areas to focus on/avoid
Set a blanket curfew (which stays the same week to week) instead of negotiating a different curfew for different occasions. This will prevent a back-and-forth conversation from happening on a weekly basis.
• Establish clear rules: communicate clear ground rules (e.g. if you say their curfew is 10.30pm, you mean just that, not 10.35pm).
• Don’t debate rules: parenting is not a democracy and you are not there to negotiate your terms with your child. This can be communicated as follows: ‘I understand that you disagree with your curfew time. The truth is that sometimes in life we don’t always get what we want and we need to obey the laws laid out. You don’t have to be in favour of all the rules in our home but you need to find a way to follow them.’
• Focus on your family values: do not get sucked into the conversation about what "everyone else’s curfew is" but rather focus on what works for you and your family. If punctuality, respect and health (getting adequate sleep) are important values in your home then these should not be compromised by what others are doing.
• Know when to make exceptions to the rules: allow room for flexibility when it comes to your child requesting to take part in special events (like attending a concert) that exceed their standard curfew time (e.g. if they request to attend a music concert that finishes at 11.30pm but their curfew is at 11pm, it would be reasonable to make an exception to accommodate the occasion).
Addressing kids’ questions and fears
• Create a platform for your child to speak: be open to hearing their thoughts and concerns about their new curfew
• Acknowledge and validate their feelings: for example: ‘I can see that you feel angry and frustrated about your new curfew, but these are the rules in our home’.
• Brainstorm for solutions together: your child may feel left out because they don’t have the same curfew as their friends, which means they don’t get to spend as much time with them on weekends. So it may be helpful to problem-solve with them how they can still socialise with their friends without exceeding the curfew (e.g. arranging to spend the afternoon at the pool; attending an earlier show at the movies).
2. The value of money
Speaking to your children about the value of money fosters an understanding of where money comes from. They also learn that it is something that has to be earned by working for it.
Speaking openly and comfortably with your children about money also helps them learn to develop a healthier relationship with it, and more importantly how to respect it. It empowers children with money skills, and by doing so you will help them set limits with regards to their spending and avoid impulse buys. And by teaching kids about the value of spending, saving and donating money, they learn about delayed gratification and budgeting.
In general, children begin to develop attitudes and build habits around money as early as four years old. Therefore, it is important to introduce them to concepts of saving (e.g. having their own savings bank) and spending (e.g. buying their own ice cream at the vendor) from a young age.
How to start the conversation
Teaching children about the value of money is an ongoing process. It can be done as often as you find time to do so.
• Give your child an experience first: instead of only having a conversation about the importance of saving money, allow your child to experience what ‘saving money’ looks and feels like (e.g. give them a savings bank for their birthday and encourage them to start saving weekly).
• Have regular conversations about money: seek out learning moments to teach children about the value of money (e.g. whether it be explaining to them why it’s important to leave a tip for waiters or sharing with them how you have had to put money aside every month to be able to take the family on a summer vacation).
• Be aware of your language around money: avoid saying to your children ‘we can’t afford that’ or ‘that’s not within our budget’ and move to language that invites possibility: ‘if you save up, then you can buy yourself a PlayStation in a few months’.
• Play games with your children: play is a great medium for children to learn key concepts. By playing a board game such as Monopoly with them, you are teaching them how to be responsible with their money and to take ownership of their spending.
• Model healthy money habits: this can be done by simply allowing your children to see how you plan meals and budget grocery shopping for the week ahead. Invite them along on your trips to the supermarket and have them participate in finding good deals for the items on your list.
• Give them a concrete experience of how debit/credit cards work: allow them to assist you in drawing money from an ATM and explaining to them where money actually comes from (i.e. working for it).
Areas to focus on/avoid
• Be aligned with your values: be sure to anchor your teachings in family values, for example: ‘We save 40 per cent of our monthly income because we value financial freedom and want to retire comfortably one day’ or ‘We donate money to our local charity every month because we value generosity in our home.’
• Delayed gratification: teach your children the value of waiting for things. In a world of instant gratification, it will serve your children well if they are able to manage their impulses, practise patience and be rewarded in return. This can be done by encouraging them to save up for something that they really want (e.g. if they want the latest Apple AirPods, then they need to put a portion of their monthly allowance aside to save up for them).
• Teach them how to grow their money: this can be done in a variety of ways but a simple way could be as follows: when giving them their monthly allowance, explain to them that whatever they manage to save at the end of the month, you will double – if they save Dh150, then you will reward them with Dh300).
Addressing kids’ questions and fears on the issue
• Carve out time to connect with your child: by spending quality time with your children on a weekly basis, and being curious about their inner worlds, you automatically create a platform for them to share their concerns with you. That way, you can address concerns as they come up.
• Acknowledge and validate their feelings: don’t assume that you know why your child is feeling worried about something money-related but rather be curious to hear more: for example: ‘I understand that you feel worried about the fact that I have stopped working, what is making you feel this way?’
• Be mindful of what you share with your children: make sure that your explanations regarding your finances are always age-appropriate. When children are inappropriately exposed to their parents’ financial problems it can leave them feelings anxious, helpless and insecure (e.g. your five-year-old should not be privy to the fact that you miscalculated your budget and can’t afford to pay rent for the next month).
(Advice courtesy of Christine Kritzas, counselling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia)
3. Make-up and clothes
These are tools of communication. The way we choose to project ourselves to the world is very important and we certainly don’t want our children conveying the wrong message. So, what is appropriate for your child? Well, in the first instance, only you can answer that question. Again, this comes back to your own values and behaviour. Clothes and make-up are about self-expression, but of course, there are certain external rules that also have an impact on us. For example, most high schools have a no-make-up and no jewellery policy. If your child attends a school with set rules, then I feel as a parent it is your role to underwrite those rules, and if they are broken, to support the school in reinforcing the consequences for doing so. Not to, would be to send the message that it is fine for your child to break rules that apply to everyone.
How to start the conversation
Communication is the watchword. Conveying what you think is appropriate doesn’t need to be done in an authoritarian manner as this simply sets up endless confrontation. Much better to express a thousand small messages that will be picked up over time. This could include talking about make-up with your daughter, experimenting together and coming to a consensus about what is appropriate and suitable. Looking at magazines and discussing the images can also give you a platform to show where you think boundaries have been crossed. It allows you to discuss ideas about body image and what you think is positive or otherwise.
Areas to focus on/avoid
Be clear about boundaries. It might be that you are fine with your children experimenting with certain things at home with their friends, but that they understand they need to be a certain age to venture out in public with it on. Understanding the world your child operates in is also crucial. What pressures are they under to conform to a certain look or style? Peer pressure and pressure from social media is a huge outside influence that parents and young people have to contend with. Wearing the ‘right’ brands, looking the ‘right’ way and following the latest trends can seem like the most important thing in a teen’s life. Parents need to be there to guide and support their children through these years so they can stay true to themselves as opposed to being overly influenced by external forces. And don’t forget boys in this too – they need guidance just as much as girls. Listen, talk and keep talking – that’s my motto. Parenting is one long conversation!
4. Weight and body shaming
For me, this is such an important topic that needs handling with a great deal of sensitivity. Young people today are bombarded with messages surrounding weight, many of them not healthy. Those messages can be confusing too, so that our young people sometimes don’t understand what the term ‘healthy’ actually means in practice.
• It is important for parents not to make critical judgements about their own bodies or those of their children. This can be very hard as many of us are programmed to project a negative self-image about how we look.
• The best way to encourage a healthy body-confidence in your own child is to focus on the positive and encourage an open dialogue. Listen and pick up on the messages that your child is sending out about weight issues and make sure you discuss them and correct them if necessary.
• Try to cook and eat together as a family as often as possible, to encourage healthy behaviour around food and make health rather than weight your key focus.
(Advice courtesy of Russell Hemmings, a life coach and cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist)
Look out for the second part of this series next week for more difficult topics and how to bring them up with your children.