When your kids are little, they are all over you. Literally. A human jungle gym…they climb, writhe, wriggle and squirm all over, covering you with earthy hugs and sticky kisses. They share every single teeny tiny detail of their days even though you were right there navigating it all. They start conversations voluntarily with you.all.the.time.
I remember one of my preschool-aged sons asking me, “Mommy, do you like khaki socks? I like khaki socks.” I responded to his random question and he fired off another one without skipping a beat, “Mommy, do you like blue socks? I like blue socks.” I will spare you the details of this lengthy conversation and remain grateful that he didn’t have full knowledge of a 64-color crayola box at that tender age. Yet I hold dear the memory of that conversation because he was trying to connect with me, exploring things we might both like that mashed us together in his little mind. He wanted us to share every daily experience and talk about it over and over and over again.
When kids start school, all that sharing is spread out among more people…teachers, buddies, and neighborhood friends. You still get a good dose of after-school details, though, and you get conversation starters cued by art projects and smiley-face stamped papers they bring home.
Then your kids have the audacity to grow more. All of a sudden mini-adults are sparking out of them as they navigate the world of middle school and high school. Their minds are extremely busy places and they are doing a lot of internal processing. All of this chaotic brain activity shorts out their verbal processing and those sweet little childish conversations become more like staccato grunts and groans. I have boys, so plenty of bodily noises accompany their one or two-word responses. Although I’ve become quite adept at reading facial expressions and body postures, my mommy-brain is still curious about their experiences in those busy school hallways and classrooms. I still like to hear in their own words what impacted them in the course of an ordinary day.
I’ve embraced the subtle strategy of the Side-by-Side conversation. Most often this occurs in the car as we are driving to an activity or returning home. After an initial greeting and brief run-down of “how was your day?” type conversation, a natural lull fills the car. I try to wait patiently while my son decompresses in his own way. Sometimes it’s through music; sometimes it’s a snack. Gradually some wordy tidbits start to fall out. I try to not scoop them up too hastily, but allow them to linger between us…because sometimes those few phrases turn into an avalanche of words. Suddenly I’m hearing a funny story about a new friend or how a teacher brings day-old bakery goodies to class, endearing him to this mass of hungry adolescents.
During this season of March Madness, I join my son on the couch and absorb a litany of sports statistics of his favorite teams. I’ve learned to ask specific questions about a few key players so I have a storyline to follow-up on each game. Sitting side-by-side, my son overlooks my lack of “fervor” at his level and seems to appreciate my tentative participation in his world of sports. We are training together in this new language of ours, connecting through the excitement of buzzer beaters, the disappointments of tough losses, and the shared eye-rolling at inane remarks offered by the color commentator.
These side-by-side moments are indirect and nonthreatening. With our eyes focused ahead on the road or a basketball game, our bodies are little more relaxed and the words come out a little more freely. We are aligned in a mutual activity. Somewhere in the midst of the drive or the time-outs in the game, I pick up nuggets about social interactions that would not have been shared directly in a face-to-face Q & A. I savor these and add them to my mommy collection of these brief moments that weave into the fabric of their childhood.
“So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Romans 14:19
I’ve learned that by coming alongside my boys in whatever they are doing or simply making myself present in their spaces, that something beautiful begins to unfold. A few words are batted between us. Sometimes I lob them too far and they miss their target entirely. Sometimes I come too close and they are returned with a solid shot. Timing is delicate. We tiptoe around, exploring neutral territory or trying a humorous diversion. Awkward moments are all too frequent, but we keep trying, side-by-side, because there’s a lot more than khaki socks out there, folks…but at least it’s a place to start.