Sometime last fall I really messed up when talking to my youngest about his newest piece of artwork. He brought it over, beaming and proud. I looked at it and exclaimed “That is such an awesome dinosaur!” As soon as I said it, his face fell, and he said “Mom, it’s not a dinosaur its a crocodile.”
Then a couple days later he brought over another drawing, and I’m going to be completely honest that I had absolutely NO IDEA what the art represented. There were splashes of color everywhere and lines and squiggles and I couldn’t tell if I was raising an impressionist genius or a kid who had gotten bored with the colors. I held it up, turned it over and around, even squinted at it, looking for some kind of clue.
I said nothing for a minute, and by that time my 4 year old was wiggling expectantly, waiting for my assessment. I remembered my previous error and didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. After another moment I smiled, handed it to him, and said “That is a wonderful piece of art! Can you tell me about it?”
I don’t know where that came from but his face broke out into a great big smile and he proceeded to tell me an elaborate story about spacemen and dragons and how the superhero was there to save the day. I got several full minutes of explanation and description before he headed back over to the art table to keep creating.
I laughed a little at how well that had turned out, but I also began to reflect at how that question was different than many of my previous statements of praise. Instead of projecting my thoughts and ideas onto his project, or putting my own interpretation on the table, I had asked with genuine curiosity for his insight and viewpoint. Sure, in this case it had been out of desperation as I had no other clue as to what I was looking at, but perhaps I could use this question in other areas of parenting.
And so I started asking. “Tell me about it.” “Tell me about your picture.” “Tell me about this game.” “Tell me about your sand creation.” “Tell me about your field trip.” “Tell me about lunch today.” “Tell me.”
And then I wait. The waiting is the hard part. Sometimes I get a flood of information like I did with the spaceman dragon superhero picture. And sometimes (especially with my 8 year old) I get a roll of the eyes and an “It was fine.” But sometimes I can get a moment of connection that I might have missed if I had asked a less open ended question. And sometimes I can follow up the “Tell me about it” with “tell me how you felt about that.” And then (if I’m really lucky) I can get a few minutes of view into their minds and help them know that they are truly seen.
It started with an ambiguous art picture, but “Tell me about” is a phrase that I now try to use as much as possible. My hope is that as my kids grow from preschoolers to teenagers and beyond, that they’ll remember that I asked them about their views instead of assuming I understood their intentions. And maybe then, when their child sized worries morph into adult sized problems, they’ll also remember that they can always tell me about it.